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Public Hearing and Walk Will Focus on Aquatic Park

by Toni Mester
Friday December 07, 2012 - 05:53:00 PM
Recent flooding in Aquatic Park
Toni Mester
Recent flooding in Aquatic Park

A public hearing on the draft environmental impact report (DEIR) of the Aquatic Park Improvement Program (APIP) will be held on Wednesday evening December 12 from 7 to 8:30 at the James Kenney Center (2nd floor), 1720 Eighth Street.

Testimony will become part of the CEQA record with all questions to be answered by the consultant (Atkins) in the final EIR. The report is technical, but not impenetrable to those familiar with the Park and its problems. The APIP is mostly a hydrology project aimed at improving water quality through increased circulation and faster flushing of storm water runoff through the lagoons, the latter purpose being the more controversial.

Interested persons are invited to join a free walk on Sunday, December 9 that will leave the Waterside Café at 84 Bolivar Drive promptly at 11 AM, circling the Park clockwise, and ending at 1 PM at the Touchdown Plaza in front of the new Dona Spring Animal Shelter. The walk will be led by Mark Liolios (Aquatic Park EGRET) and Toni Mester (CESP), who will point out relevant features of the Park and explain the APIP proposals. Birders can enjoy watching the winter arrivals. Although the forecast is for bright and breezy weather, the ground is saturated from recent rains; participants should wear sturdy footwear and bring a water bottle. The Café will be open for coffee. Dogs are welcome but must be on leash. No reservations are required; just show up at the Café before 11 AM. 

The entire DEIR is available on-line at the City of Berkeley Aquatic Park page. The project description (Section 3) summarizes the APIP objectives and background including the hydrology component. Major proposals include enlarging the outflows from the Potter Street storm drain, cutting a channel between the lagoons and replacing a section of roadway with a bridge, repairing the tide tubes, and installing slide gates to control the flow of water. 

A good amount of dirt will be moved around, taking fill from the channel cut and placing it on Bird Island and excavating a huge chunk of parkland on the west side to create earthen berms elsewhere. 

Some of these proposals win widespread approval like repair of the five central tide tubes that provide most of the tidal exchange; others have raised objections. 

Liolios fears that enlarging the culvert openings will allow for destructive flooding during winter storms. In 2008, after a year long examination of APIP, a Parks and Recreation Commission subcommittee approved an alternative that would not permit storm water from entering the lagoons, and this vote became the basis for the DEIR preferred project. In fact, the physical infrastructure is actually the same for all the CEQA alternatives; it’s only the operation of the system that differs. 

Phil Price, once a member of the parks commission and now chair of the Audubon East Bay conservation committee, is supportive of some project goals but wary. One of his 2008 Bird Blogs aptly summarizes the hydrology dilemma: how to increase tidal flows while preventing storm drain pollution. 

Other stakeholders are more interested in recreational opportunities. Matt Brandt, spokesman for the Berkeley Water Ski Club, spoke at a recent Parks and Recreation Commission meeting and expressed concern about their future, while members of the Rowing Club wonder how changes will impact access to their clubhouse. 

The problems of Aquatic Park fall into three rough categories: the winter, the summer, and the year round. The winter problems are currently on view, especially the flooding from storm drain overflow and runoff that enter the lagoons from many directions. 

The flood waters leave trash and pollutants in the park, damage or drown trees and other protective vegetation, erode the banks, paths, and stonework, and deposit sediment on the bottom of the already shallow lagoons, which then become too warm, stagnant, and odiferous in summer, overgrown with algae and aquatic plants. 

And so it goes, the winter problems generate the summer ones. 

The year round problems are perennial and legendary: the lack of a sound wall barrier to protect park users from the ever increasing traffic on I-80, failure to enforce the leash laws that should prevent dogs from hounding the shorebirds, and continued use of natural enclaves for sexual encounters despite official efforts to curb inappropriate behavior. 

It’s questionable whether APIP will solve any of the plumbing problems or just delay the solution, the rebuilding of the drain infrastructure that would divert storm water from the lagoons. The optimum upgrade, known as Option 1 of the Watershed Management Plan, is favored by environmental organizations, because it’s two hits in one, both preventing upstream flooding in southwest Berkeley and bypassing the Park. Unfortunately, it’s expensive. 

If any Santa out there has $20 million to spare or a sizeable chunk thereof, please contact John Steere at Berkeley Partners for Parks, a nonprofit that can receive charitable gifts on behalf of Aquatic Park. It is unclear how APIP will be funded or which improvements have priority. A Coastal Conservatory grant has been identified by staff, and additional money may be forthcoming from the recently approved Measure M. 

In the meantime, APIP tries to merge two incompatible functions: flood control and repair of the water quality in Aquatic Park, which wasn’t created as a flood basin. It’s questionable whether this redesign of the Park to accomplish both tasks at once can succeed without further damage to the Park’s infrastructure, especially if future storms exceed past downpours as a result of global warming. 

Hurricane Sandy is just one warning sign that trouble in on the way. A deluge in Copenhagen last summer dumped six inches of rain on the coastal city in less than three hours, causing over $1 billion in damages to personal, business, and municipal property. That’s a negative bottom line that makes $20 million look like a good investment. 

Copenhagen has devised a climate adaptation plan in response to recent flash floods. Maybe it’s time for Berkeley to get serious about flood control that would spare both Aquatic Park and the rest of downstream Berkeley. 

Toni Mester serves on the board of Citizens for East Shore Parks