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Why We Need to Take Creeks Out of Pipes

By Carole Schemmerling
Wednesday December 30, 2009 - 09:31:00 AM

When the citizens of Berkeley so generously passed a small—$5 million for five years—bond measure in the late 1970s, to put parks in neighborhoods in which there were none, they created an opportunity to open (“daylight”) a portion of an urban creek for the first time in California, and, possibly, the nation. 

A new park, on an old railroad right-of-way was designed and built by the city and changed the area from a desolate dumping ground to one of the most heavily used parks in Berkeley. Strawberry Creek, contained in a 300-foot cement culvert, bisected the area, and the city staff were opposed to the Parks and Recreation Commission’s proposal to open it. As chair of the commission I set a public hearing so that the community could see what was being planned and comment on it. I invited David Brower to comment on the proposal as well. The staff gave their reasons for not recommending that the creek be opened. They said “it would cost too much” and that “people would die.” They were asked if anyone had died in the open creek in North Berkeley. The answer was no. Mr. Brower then addressed the commissioners and in his very deep and authoritative voice said that commissioners would be “derelict in their duties a guardians of the environment and our natural heritage” if they didn’t vote to the daylight the creek. And so they did. 

On the day that the culvert was removed, the children of this poor neighborhood sat on the banks, on the broken concrete and silently gazed in awe at their first sight of the creek water flowing. (Since 1983-84, no one has died and the cost was well below what was expected.) 

Aside from providing a creek for those kids to enjoy, another outcome was the formation of the Urban Creeks Council in 1982. Since then, five more creeks in the East Bay have had culverts removed. The Urban Creeks Council also restored a number of already open, but trashed creeks. Opening culverted creeks is the most rewarding and thrilling thing we do. And it is often the most difficult and most complicated goal to achieve. The hurdles that have to be overcome are many and somewhat different each time. First is getting the proposal accepted by the community and the politicians. Some of the objections we have met are that it will attract the homeless, or the rats, or become a dump or a sewer, or it will cause flooding and children will drown. The politicians like to invoke the costs of maintenance (which are actually low). Some adjacent property owners might fear that criminals will use the creeks. All of these concerns have to be met. The first rule of doing any project that affects the public is to allow all the objections to be heard and responded to. It takes time, and it must be done so that when the project goes out for funding these issues have been addressed. Then, since these projects are usually done on public land, the planning process needs to be open to the community in order to get their input. There will always be naysayers, but if most people are positive, it can happen. 

The most important thing that has to happen throughout the whole process, from beginning to completion thereafter, is education. The citizens and especially politicians, have to learn how a daylighting project will benefit their community (and will make them look good). Here are some of the benefits: 

• Water quality: When the stream is in a culvert, it is hard to determine what is in the water, and, since a lot of culverts drain the streets and impervious or non-porous surfaces, all organic and inorganic pollutants are carried to the receiving body of water. Once a stream has reached a large river or a bay or the ocean, it is no longer possible to capture the pollutants. Open streams, with lots of riparian vegetation (plants that grow best next to rivers and streams) take up more of any dissolved pollutants than a water treatment facility is able to do. Vegetated small streams are terrific water purifiers.  

• Flood control: Storm water in culverts acts like bullets in guns. Water “shoots” out at top speed and often creates damage and flooding. Most culverts, being man-made, are aging and deteriorating. They leak and break; branches and debris become jammed in the pipes. Then the water backs up and can flood upstream. Or, as it happened in Berkeley at Euclid and Hearst, one very wet winter, the jammed culvert exploded up through the floor of the drugstore above in a huge geyser! Flood control is best achieved with open, vegetated streams that slow the velocity of the current and allow the water to soak into the soil on the banks. 

• Habitat: When a 200-foot portion of Baxter Creek in El Cerrito was daylighted and vegetated with lots of willows, it very quickly became a residence for Black Phoebes—a place where no one had seen them before. The great losses of riparian plants everywhere, not only in the cities, have had a very negative effect on bird and fish populations. In local creeks that we have opened, we are seeing steelhead coming up the stream and spawning. The shade provided by the riparian vegetation in opened and restored streams creates viability for all the levels of the biota, from the micro-organisms to the fish and the birds, which then become our “canaries in the coal mine.” Their presence and health tells us about the water and air quality. 

• Education: In many places in California, schools have been built on or very near creeks. We promote the value of these resources as educational tools. At Thousand Oaks School where we opened the creek, not only was it the children’s favorite place to learn about nature, but it also provided a powerful lesson in civics and the power of citizens working together. The opened stream was plagued with sewage spills, so that the children were not allowed in it. They learned how badly folks used to put towns together in the old days, running sewer lines next to, across, or in the creek, never considering what would happen when they broke or fell apart. Finally the school kids took action. They asked their teacher to take them to a City Council meeting to ask the mayor and the councilmembers to stop the polluting. Within a relatively short time (for the city) an old, unknown sewer line was discovered coming from the nearby business district and was removed. My favorite quote was from a third grade boy who said how happy he was that the creek was clean and he could play in it, but that he hadloved the creek even when it was polluted.  

• The public trust: The Public Trust Doctrine was a concept and policy that once was part of the social fabric, a sharing of resources for the common good. It has fallen into disuse in the last few decades because of intense lobbying for and defense of private property rights over all other rights. In Montana, downstream neighbors on a large creek have no water and no rights to the water because the up- stream ranchers have used an old statute that allows them to keep all the water. Idaho has recently refused to allow the Public Trust Doctrine any standing in court. The state has done away with the doctrine entirely. On the other hand, California refers to the “waters of the state” in its policies and enforcement code. And there is more of a sense that the Public Trust Doctrine is a useful and necessary tool in protecting and enhancing our very valuable and limited resources. 

Daylighting streams is one of the most important and immediately rewarding ways to make positive changes in the environment. The Army Corps of Engineers has stated that the Mississippi River is so heavily polluted that there is no way to clean it unless the tributaries are cleaned. That means preventing pesticides, nitrates, copper dust from the brakes of cars, and myriad other pollutants from getting into the water. The best way to do that is with heavy planting of riparian vegetation to take up the toxins. It won’t happen quickly, but the process needs to be started. And above all, the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts have to be strenuously enforced and strengthened in order to stop and reverse the damage that has been and is being done. 


Footnote: In Contra Costa County the director of the flood control district, a very practical and farsighted public employee, is developing a 50-year plan to remove culverts everywhere possible, in order to cope with the challenges of the future.