City Takes First Step Toward Aquatic Park Improvements

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday June 25, 2009 - 07:40:00 PM

The City of Berkeley began the formal process this week of what could be a decade-long or longer multi-million dollar environmental upgrade of the Aquatic Park bayside tidal pool. 

  Among the issues being considered in what is called the “Aquatic Park Improvement Program” is how to improve water quality on the 99 acres of lagoons, wetlands, and parklands stretching between West Berkeley and a section of Highway 880 bound by Ashby and University avenues. One of the major complications of the project is created by the Berkeley stormwater runoff, which sometimes passes through the main aquatic park lagoon on its way to the bay, so that any regulation of the natural filling and draining of lagoon waters will have an effect on West Berkeley flooding, a chronic problem. 

As a first step, the city’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Waterfront issued a “Notice of Preparation of an Environmental Impact Report and Notice of Scoping Meeting” this week, the first step in a formal environmental review of the proposed project. 

   A public scoping session, the first legally mandated public meeting in the EIR process, will be held on July 9, 7 p.m., at the North Berkeley Senior Center. 

At Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, councilmembers received a half-hour briefing on the proposed project. Staff members said that the current water quality situation in the park was untenable, with stagnant water caused by slow draining, which results in the death of plant life and fish and an accompanying decay and odor. Staff said they expect to eventually put in place a hydrolic system that speeds up the regular tidal-based draining of park lagoon waters into the bay. 

Among the staff’s proposed drainage suggestions are enlarging the series of underground pipes that run between the aquatic park lagoon system and the bay, and installing some sort of regulatory system within them to prevent storm-water drainage from entering the lagoons. 

Several councilmembers suggested that a study of lagoon-draining hydrolics must be accompanied by a study of the larger West Berkeley water drainage situation. Councilmember Kriss Worthington called the stormwater drainage system the “whale in the room,” and Councilmember Linda Maio said the Aquatic Park study “has to be put in the context of an overall watershed management program.” Mayor Tom Bates, suggesting that no amount of pipe-opening would be enough to enable the lagoon drainage needed, said that “we might have to massively open the lagoon to the bay again.” The Aquatic Park lagoon was once directly connected to the bay, but was divided from the bay waters when Interstate 880 was built. 

The proposed Aquatic Park improvement project is being backed by a $2 million set-aside from the California State Coastal Conservancy to implement hydrology improvements in the park, but at least one Councilmember, Laurie Capitelli, calls that amount a “spit in the ocean, no pun intended,” and claims that the ultimate cost will be much more.