In 1989 a group of creek enthusiasts, presumably with personal ties to members of the City Council, surreptitiously sold the City a strange bill of goods – an ordinance filled with nitpicking regulations and a glossary of arcane terms (rip-rap, crib-walls, fascines, gabions) – that reads as if it were written not by common-sense conservationists but by a cult of creek-worshipers intent on imposing their obsession on the world. It offered some reasonable constraints – no new construction within thirty feet of a creek, the day-lighting of culverted creeks where feasible – but hidden within it and unnoticed for fifteen years wasa larger vision. Following a major disaster – something like the ‘06 quake and its attendant firestorms – no creek-side structure could be rebuilt without a special variance from the City’s notoriously willful and erratic Zoning Adjustments Board. Thus, after such an event, great swaths of homes and businesses could be replaced by parkland with footpaths and biketrails.
On Tuesday evening, September 28, 2004, the creek-dreamers were rudely awakened: There would not be trout fishing in Berkeley. This is a denselypopulated city, not a sylvan glade. Fortunately, our conservationist predecessors passed down to us rich gifts: access to natural creeks in Codornices Park,Live Oak Park, John Hinkel Park, the Rose Garden, the U C campus, not to mention the East Bay Regional Parks – 90, 000 acres of natural habitat laced with endless miles of creeks.
Over 400 residents attended the Tuesday meeting. The City Council, having received many letters and e-mails, and a petition with 600 names collected by Neighborson Urban Creeks, announced that they would amend the rebuilding aspect of the ordinance – and they did. During the speeches by dozens of attendees, however, there were repeated demands that the ordinance be revoked, repealed, thrown out entirely, all met by rousing applause. The Council chose not to take such action, fearing that in the subsequent hiatus someone would build on a creek and a new crisis would erupt.
They were probably wise not to revoke it, only because it poses another matter of major importance: culverted creeks. Many parts of our creeks, on both public and private property, run through old and deteriorating culverts. The rupture or collapse of a culvert under a structure can be catastrophic. The Council expressed their commitment to deal with the problem of inspecting, repairing, replacing culverts, or day-lighting the creeks flowing through them, and of the enormous cost involved. Some culverts are large enough to allow workers to enter them. Presumably these may be strengthened with internal bracing or sections of precast lining. In the case of smaller culverts, it may be more practical to divert their water into new culverts under adjacent streets, like sewers, for future access. Then the old culverts may be filled with concrete slurry to prevent their collapse. Given the scope of this problem and its potential cost, the City would be wise to forget about open creeks, except to prevent new construction or wanton pollution. Whatever may be done to them, a thousand years from now the creeks will prevail.
How the matter of culverts will be addressed was not resolved. Creek people want a special task force where their “expertise” may be heard – presumably the same expertise that produced the misbegotten ordinance. A more appropriate venue would be the Planning Commission, where issues of engineering and cost analysis can be co-ordinated. The best choice would be the Public Works Commission, which is devoted to public safety. The Council will address this further on October 12. Stay tuned!