Press Releases

Aquatic Park Plans Raise Issues of Habitat, Flood Management

By Kristin McFarland
Thursday July 03, 2008 - 10:01:00 AM

Plans to renovate Aquatic Park have environmentalists and some members of the Parks Commission’s Aquatic Park Subcommittee concerned about the city’s motives and the plan’s potential ramifications. 

On June 24, the City Council approved three alternative versions of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Waterfront’s Aquatic Park Improvement Program, so that the plan can now undergo California Environmental Quality (CEQA) environmental review. But delays and changes to the proposed Aquatic Park plan have even project planners questioning the program’s goals.  

Funded by a $2 million grant for hydrology and habitat improvement from the Coastal Conservancy, the Aquatic Park Improvement Program is purportedly intended to improve the habitat of fish and seabirds living in and around the park’s three lagoons. But to many, the primary purpose of the program appears to be flood management, not habitat improvement. 

“I want to use that $2 million to improve the habitat down at Aquatic Park, but right now I’m not clear what parts of the project will be submitted for review,” said Park Commissioner Lisa Stephens, a subcommittee member whose proposed plan was adopted by the council last week as the “preferred alternative.” 

Stephens said the planning of the Aquatic Park Improvement Program has been plagued with delays and conflicting expectations from the city. After languishing in committee and waiting for a City Council resolution for nearly six months, the three alternative versions of the program’s Phase I hydrology plan were passed by the council last week and can now go on to CEQA review. But even now, commission and subcommittee members disagree about what the priorities of the Aquatic Park Improvement Program should be. 

The water in the park suffers from low circulation, which creates high temperatures and low levels of dissolved oxygen, conditions fatal to fish living in the water and the birds that feed on them. Additionally, bird habitats have deteriorated with the invasion of non-native plants and a flood of visitors. 

During planning meetings held since 2006, the subcommittee made improving water circulation its highest priority. The first improvements the plan recommends include repairing and replacing the tidal tubes that allow the circulation of bay water in and out of the lagoons. The five main culverts run under I-80, and were installed when the road and Aquatic Park were built in the 1930s. Most of the tubes are in disrepair, and the northernmost culvert has completely collapsed. Rebuilding the culverts would allow bay water to flow in more freely. 

“The first step is to increase circulation to lower temperatures and increase the amount of dissolved oxygen,” said Deborah Chernin, the parks department’s principal planner, who works with the Aquatic Park Subcommittee. 

As another circulation improvement measure, the program would enlarge connections between the lagoons and the Potter Street and Strawberry storm drains, and install floodgates at those connections to prevent storm water from entering the lagoons. 

This tactic has the potential to aggravate Aquatic Park’s most sensitive problem: the issue of storm water drainage into the park’s lagoons. The debate over circulation and pollution has further delayed the development of an improvement plan. 

Most of the time, the Potter Street and Strawberry storm drains let bay water flow in and out of the lagoons at high tide, but during a large storm or flood, the drains let overflow storm water spill into the park’s lagoons, allowing the city to use the lagoons as what Stephens calls a “de facto storm water surge basin for the city.” 

Both hydrology alternatives passed for CEQA review would enlarge the storm drain connections. 

“The reason that the connections will be enlarged is to allow more tidal flow,” Chernin said. “As a result, more storm water could be let into the lagoons.” 

Under the Department of Park and Recreation’s original Aquatic Park proposal, the floodgates would be closed during “first flush” storms to prevent long-accumulated pollutants from entering the lagoons with the first rainfall after a long dry spell. The gates would be reopened after a storm, and, more problematically, could be opened to prevent flooding upstream in West Berkeley. 

“The first premise of the plan is that it would be storm-water neutral,” Chernin said. “It would be designed so that no additional storm water would go into the lagoon than currently does.”  

The issue is further muddied by the question of whether storm water should even be drained into the lagoons at all. Confusion and disagreements persist about the meaning of a permanent 38-year-old Regional Water Quality Control Board order which prohibits “the discharge of all wastes, including storm drainage which may contain wastes, to the Berkeley Aquatic Park Lagoon.” 

There is disagreement over the meaning of two clauses that require the city to “eliminate all storm drainage which may contain wastes to the Berkeley Aquatic Park lagoon” and to “ensure that all wastes are removed from storm sewers which will continue to discharge to Berkeley Aquatic Park Lagoon.” It’s unclear whether the order requires all storm water or only polluted storm water to be diverted. 

According to Chernin, the board order was created to prevent industrial waste, not storm water, from entering the lagoons. She also said the city and the water board view the order as inapplicable and obsolete, because when it was passed, the water board did not fully understand the need for water circulation using the storm drains. 

Brian Wines, who oversees permits for Alameda County at the Regional Water Quality Control Board, flatly disagreed about the order’s meaning.  

“The order was intended to keep all storm water away from the lagoon,” Wines said. He rejected Chernin’s distinction between polluted wastewater and storm water, saying that all water carried by the storm drains necessarily carries urban waste and pollution. 

Wines recommended as early as June 2007 that the city study the effects of storm water on the lagoons before finalizing the plan’s proposals. 

Stephens’ modified plan, the “preferred alternative,” would include the enlarged storm drain connections, but would require that the floodgates remain closed during all storm events, allowing no storm water to enter the lagoon. 

“The storm water—not just the polluted storm water—is the problem,” Stephens said. “A large storm could completely kill the saline water habitat by dumping fresh water in.” 

Even if pollutants could be removed from the storm water before it entered the lagoons, it would still harm the animals living in the water. 

“Toxic storm water runoff that is illegally piped into the lagoons is a much more serious problem for the park’s water quality than maintaining extremely high levels of tidal flow,” said Mark Liolios, volunteer coordinator for Aquatic Park EGRET, the habitat stewardship group for Aquatic Park. “Berkeley’s urban runoff contains many biological toxins and other harmful substances, yet even if the water were filtered to drinking water standards, the discharge of fresh water into the park can kill marine life by suddenly altering the lagoons’ salinity.”  

But because the lagoons have been used for so long as an emergency storm drainage basin, preventing all drainage into the park could create new problems for the community. 

A large amount of West Berkeley runoff enters the lagoon through a diversion pipe built by the city in 1971. The pipe was built to divert water from the Parker, Carleton, Grayson and Heinz streets storm drains to the Potter storm drain and then to the bay, but during large storms or high tide, that pipe actually dumps water into the lagoon. 

“We all discussed it and agreed that (Stephens’ plan) would be the best solution, but would increase flooding in West Berkeley,” Chernin said. “So it’s not a realistic or feasible option until flood management in West Berkeley has been addressed.” 

Stephens disagreed: “There’s no evidence that even if you allowed the park to flood completely during storms, flooding in West Berkeley would be increased.” Stephens said it simply hasn’t been studied enough to offer conclusive results.  

For now, the two hydrology alternatives and the “no project” alternative will be studied in greater detail during the CEQA review. According to Chernin, the review process could take at least a year to allow for additional environmental impact reviews by a CEQA consultant. Five public hearings will be held during that time to allow for public input.  

“The review period is basically a chance for the wider public as well as the regulatory agencies to review and comment on the impact and implications of the project,” Chernin said. 

In other words, there’s a chance that the project could simply die on the table, failing the CEQA review process or buried quietly in paperwork. 

“If this project has to be done in a way that they can’t put storm water into the park, I’d put money on it that the improvements will never be done,” Stephens said.