When Is an Urban Creek not a Creek?
UC Restoration Project Raises Environmental Questions
L 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
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
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
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
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
Berkeley resident and environmental activist L A Wood
said the current plans will turn the creek into a "radical flood
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.