When Is an Urban Creek not a Creek?

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NATURAL HISTORY & ECOLOGY OF STRAWBERRY CAYNON
Joe R. McBride, UC Berkeley Professor of Forestry: An academic walk - February 28, 2007.

 

When Is an Urban Creek not a Creek?
UC Restoration Project Raises Environmental Questions
Codornices CreekL A Wood, Daily Californian, April 6, 2000

Some in Berkeley may think that an urban creek is little more than a concrete trench and that creek restoration is accomplished merely by planting a few trees along the banks. There are likely others who would say that, the only way to return any of the city's creeks to their natural state is to reintroduce grizzly bears to Berkeley.

Perhaps there are some valid arguments for both of these perspectives. More importantly, each points out that there are obvious limits in which urban creeks can exist. Often times, these imposed urban restrictions challenge the very existence of a creek. So, when is an urban creek not a creek? This question is best answered by looking at the proposed restoration of the lower Codornices Creek, which is the boundary line between the cities of Albany and Berkeley.

At the end of last month, Waterways and Restoration Institute, a non-profit consultant group, made its first public presentation to the city of Berkeley's Parks and Recreation commission about the proposed Codornices restoration project. WRI attempted to sell the idea that the creek is little more than an unstable ditch, even though Codornices Creek has a very long history in its current configuration. WRI also claimed that the proposed changes would allow the creek to "meander along" and be more "original." Yet, the creek restoration proposal shows a new and different creek with a streambed many times wider than it currently is.

The proposal also reveals that the creek restoration would impact a much larger area than the stream itself because the project would probably result in the drainage of undeveloped wetlands west of Albany Village. The end result is that the lower Codornices would be transformed into a flood channel and virtually stripped of all supporting wetland habitat in both Berkeley and Albany.

Historically, lower Codornices has functioned as a seasonal wetlands. The area's hydrology continues to support a wide range of wetland flora and fauna mirroring the marina wetlands just west of Interstate 80. This wetlands vitality is even evident along the creek's bypass into Albany, which was created more than 50 years ago. Moreover, the stability of the lower Codornices Creek system is due, in part, to the area's limited development and encroachment. Other Berkeley creeks have not been so lucky.

Now, UC Berkeley's redevelopment of Albany Village, which fronts the lower creek project from San Pablo Avenue to the railroad tracks, is changing this picture. The university's development plans in this area are the driving force behind this flood control project that will so radically alter the hydrology and ecosystem of the lower Codornices Creek.

The creek's flood control is now dependent upon more than the modest stream and includes the slope along both sides of the creek, which extends well beyond the high water line. The current creek dynamic is what creates a sustainable wetlands habitat adjoining the creek. The proposed university scheme replaces this ecosystem with a large flood channel. The huge increase of the size of the stream bed is linked to the UC redevelopment of Albany Village.

The flood control problem centers around the lack of an adequate backset to the creek at several points along the UC housing project. The university has refused to relocate a childcare facility, a small parking lot, or even a tool shed, all of which encroach on the streambed. These simple changes would contribute to retaining some of the creek's habitat and to downsizing the proposed streambed.

The encroachment on Codornices Creek is not just the problem of the city of Albany and the university. Even the green city of Berkeley, which is developing six acres of playing fields in this area, is unwilling to allot more than 12 feet of that existing flood plain for the creek. It appears the cities are not willing to redress the UC development or themselves concerning this encroachment issue. The fact is, flood projects, like UC's, drain and destroy wetlands. This is a national problem as well as an emerging West Berkeley reality.

The next phase of the university's student housing village, if left unaltered, will eliminate this unique Berkeley resource, the lower Codornices Creek watershed. Some may still be fooled by this plan, but a flood channel with trees planted along its narrow banks, i.e., a green way, is simply not a creek, but more appropriately called a water feature.

Nearly two months ago, representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers, the California Department of Fish and Game and several other regulatory agencies involved with the proposed project met with the university and the cities of Albany and Berkeley at the creek site. Apparently, most present were looking upstream at Albany Village, and not downstream to Southern Pacific and I-80 obstacles that would create a flood channel bottleneck. Why has no one officially asked whether it's practical to alter I-80 or whether it's agreeable to either Southern Pacific or Cal Trans to build a channel designed for a 100-year event?

Both the city of Berkeley and WRI have publicly stated that Cal Trans has not returned their calls and that Southern Pacific has hardly had time to evaluate this project's impact. It's time for the project's interagency management team to literally turn around and acknowledge the many unanswered questions raised by the proposed creek "restoration." This flood project needs more than a regulatory, piecemeal approach; it really calls for a formal Environmental Impact Report.

On the Berkeley side, the creek community is being romanced by the flood project's promise that steelhead trout might once again swim up the creek. Yet, the reality is that Codornices Creek will be but a trickle in comparison to the size of the flood channel. Those who say this project is better than nothing have missed the bigger picture if it means the loss of any part of the creek system. Perhaps there is a need to reintroduce grizzly bears along the lower Codornices Creek if only to hold off the other bear, the university, and its plans to eliminate a vital portion of this creek and its habitat.

City Council May Plunge Into Creek Dispute
Sasha Talcott, Contributing Writer Daily Californian, May 16, 2000

The Berkeley City Council is expected to consider tonight whether to plunge headlong into an increasingly bitter dispute over the fate of a UC Berkeley creek.

Codornices Creek, which divides Berkeley from Albany, runs through the west side of campus. Mayor Shirley Dean placed an item on tonight's agenda which would allow council members to schedule a meeting with university officials and creek advocates over the best way to improve the creek's condition.

The debate centers on an area of the creek between Seventh and Eighth streets, which is surrounded by a maintenance building and a child-care center.

The university, along with the cities of Albany and Berkeley, has tentative plans to improve the creek's appearance. City officials and environmental activists have accused the university of trying to force the creek into a straight path, rather than allowing it to meander.

Dean said she hopes to restore the creek to its wild state.

"We're trying to see if we can't get it into a more natural channel," she said. "An open creek meandering through this area would be a big plus for the University Village and the city. It's important to try to open up the creek whenever we can reasonably do so."

University officials, however, said their plan already calls for just such a "meandering" creek and that city officials' conceptions of a concrete straightaway are badly blown out of proportion.

"We know we don't want an concrete straight channel," said Jackie Bernier, the senior planner in charge of the University Village housing project "This is not as simple as the creek people make it seem. We have to do the best we can for the creek, but our goal is our residents and their needs."

UC Berkeley hired a consultant, Waterways Restoration Institute, to help plan the project. Bernier said, however, that the consultant advocated moving the maintenance building and cutting away the play area of the child-care center -- which the university officials deemed unacceptable.

UC Berkeley simply does not have the money to move the maintenance facility or a viable alternative location, Bernier said.

She added that taking away a portion of the play area would violate state regulations, which require that child-care centers reserve a certain amount of space for outside play.

"We can't do a perfect restoration -- the creek has been messed up for years," she said. We're trying to do what we can to improve it but, in order to do anything, there has got to be some compromise."

Berkeley resident and environmental activist L A Wood said the current plans will turn the creek into a "radical flood control project."

He mocked UC Berkeley's plan to create a "meandering" creek that adheres to its natural form as closely as possible.

"Meandering" is such a loaded word," he said. "What they are trying to sell is slight curves in the creek that are not going to change its volume and flow. If it meanders now, it's not going to meander then."

Wood also accused the city and the university of not involving the public in the decision-making process.

"It's just mind-boggling," he said, "UC Berkeley is moving toward phase two of their plan and some of the most important issues haven't been ironed out." He said the mayor's move to schedule a meeting with the university is crucial to halt the bitter warfare on both sides.

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