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Upstream, Downstream: Bond Issue Scheduled for Berkeley (News Analysis)

By Toni Mester
Friday July 13, 2012 - 03:10:00 PM
Aquatic Park
Toni Mester
Aquatic Park

Gravity has emerged as a player in Berkeley politics in the guise of a watershed and streets bond currently under consideration by the City Council. In a city bifurcated between hills and flatlands, the way water moves towards the Bay parallels the trickling down of money into the municipal coffers. 

At their July 10 meeting, the Council moved to put a $30 million bond on the fall ballot but will continue their discussion of the measure wording at next week’s Tuesday night meeting. It’s a ticklish situation because polling has revealed that infrastructure repair is the only Berkeley fiscal measure that has a chance to pass the 2/3 requirement for approval. 

Even the order of the words, streets and watershed, has been debated among the lawmakers as well as the percentage allocated to each public works category should the measure pass. The need far outweighs $30 million. Full implementation of the watershed management plan would cost over $200 million according to estimates revealed at a special Council work session in October 2011 and repair of Berkeley’s 216 miles of street, 12% of which are “failed” , would require at least $46 million according to a June 26 report by Ann-Marie Hogan, the City Auditor. 

In their discussion this week, Council members revealed deep divisions in district interests, despite giving lip service to unity and the need for broad support. The main difference between the hills and the flatlands representatives is the primary focus of the bond. Should relief of the flooding in West Berkeley be the main goal and should the bond language specify the works to be funded? 

Too much detail would tie the City’s hands in leveraging the money for matching grants but too little may elicit accusations that the Council betrayed the voters’ intent, like those that greeted the announcement of the demolition of two libraries last year. 

Vice-Mayor Linda Maio and Councilmember Moore have been tasked with drafting a balanced and specific proposal that can garner a unanimous vote of the Council on Tuesday and hopefully 2/3 of the voter’s approve in November. It’s a tall order given the complexities of the need. 

The floods of West Berkeley 

The City’s Watershed Master Plan conceives an elegant and expensive greening of Berkeley that includes the capture of storm water in place by permeable pavement, bio-swales, and cisterns as well as the replacement of inadequate conduits with a system of larger pipes that would filter garbage and carry cleaner water to the Bay. Both aspects of the plan would reduce the flooding of West Berkeley. 

Council members Anderson, Moore, and Maio, who represent the districts most susceptible to flooding, spoke in favor of watershed improvements that would lessen “spilled volume” which means the overflow of storm water onto the streets and the cellars of homes and businesses. 

They mentioned “red splotches” on maps showing the flood locations along Codornices Creek in the north and Potter Creek in the south, the two watersheds where overflow occurs during the rainy season. North of University, the biggest spills happen along Second and Gilman, but the larger Potter Creek area, draining one-third of the city, is the major flood plain, where the most severe damage occurs. 

The area around the Ashby Bart station can be hard hit, especially along Woolsey and Ellis Streets, Ellsworth at Parker, and Ashby at Sacramento, with smaller flows occurring along Telegraph, Ashby, and San Pablo Avenues. Many areas that experience flooding are not represented on the map, which suggests that the overflow may be worse than depicted. For example, our neighborhood’s corner of Tenth and Dwight floods whenever a major storm coincides with a high tide, with a huge puddle that prevents crossing Dwight Way on foot. 

Troubled waters  

What doesn’t spill onto the streets ends up in the Bay and tragically, in Aquatic Park, where the polluted run-off affects those species who cannot speak for themselves: the birds and the insects and fish that they feed upon. The lagoons are also used by boaters and water skiers who come in direct contact with the water. On Tuesday night, Councilmember Maio once again called Aquatic Park “a jewel,” but its beauty is superficial. 

As the storm water runs downhill, spillover enters Aquatic Park in several locations, mostly at the Potter Street storm drain, located in the middle lagoon, where water is released by staff to prevent even worse flooding upstream. Excess also seeps from the lateral pipe beneath the trail along the east side of the main lagoon and from runoff from Heinz, Grayson, Carlton, and Parker Streets. 

The ecology of the lagoons is saline, so the fresh water itself is a kind of pollution in addition to the trash, toxic materials, and metals it carries as a result of contact with the streets. Our street sweeping is inadequate to remove all the garbage including plastics, food wrappers, and cigarette butts. The City must comply with the Regional Water Quality Board permit requirements, which are complicated and expensive. 

A city program called “adopt a drain” recruits volunteers to clean up the storm drains, a worthy cause, but that’s not sufficient effort to solve the problem. The Aquatic Park Improvement Program, APIP, which is scheduled to undergo environmental review, will attempt to update the hydrology of the Park by means that have yet to be fully explained, but that may complicate matters even more. 

The most reliable way to prevent polluted storm water from entering the Aquatic Park lagoons is to replace the conduits around its perimeter, especially the main pipe at Potter Street. These upgrades would separate the saline tidal waters from the fresh polluted storm run-off. In the Watershed Management Plan, the options are called “Resolution of SF Bay Tidal Effects” (page 70). 

The option favored by the environmentalists at the Sierra Club and Citizens for East Shore Parks is Option 1, a large pressure pipe and trash collector box that would prevent the storm water from entering the lagoons. Replacement of the main Potter conduit, estimated of $17,238,000, and its upstream feeders would also relieve the flooding, two benefits combined. 

Our decaying streets  

Despite the obvious need to upgrade the watershed infrastructure, the City seems to favor using the potential revenues for street repair. City Manager Christine Daniel outlined a plan for using 75% over five years to decrease the unfunded need. Another source of money is Alameda County Measure B, a permanent rise in sales tax to benefit transportation including streets. 

If both the city bond and the county tax are passed by the voters, Berkeley has a chance to fix deteriorating streets. That’s an outcome to be wished, but it’s not going to pay for all the needs of both watershed and streets that seem to be in competition but are actually deeply connected. 

On Tuesday night, Councilmember Susan Wengraf, who represents hills District 6 said that the revenue “will be paid out by people living east of…Shattuck…because its based on assessed value” which sounded like she was also speaking for Laurie Capitelli and Gordon Wozniak, who were quiet during this discussion. Later Wengraf suggested a compromise of a $40 million bond, split 50/50 but that failed to gain support. The silences suggested that the upstream Council members support streets while the downstream members favor watershed and that the Mayor backs the wealthier districts. Next Tuesday’s meeting will show whether this is true. 

This conundrum is going to take more diplomacy than was evidenced at the end of the evening when decorum deteriorated completely during the discussion of the “sit/lie” ordinance. But let’s not go there. 

Surely, these are times that test the souls of Berkeley citizens of name and good will. If we can’t start a process to bring the city together and fix what’s broken, we should consider revising the structure of the City Council to include at-large members. 


Toni Mester is a resident of West Berkeley