Survey to Count
City of Berkeley's Wells


Survey to Count City's Wells
Devona Walker, Berkeley Daily Planet, July 12, 2000

The City Council decided Tuesday to locate and count existing wells and aquifers. The unanimous vote means that the $15,000 allocated to the survey in last month's budget can be spent. The question lingering on, however, is exactly how far the funds will go.

"Fifteen thousand dollars will pay for the survey and maybe help us dig up one well," said Nabil Al Hadithy, the hazardous materials supervisor of the Division of Toxics Management, who is in charge of implementing the survey. "We can't do much more unless we find alternative sources of money to augment the survey."

At that time, there were approximately 3400 active wells. The data were collected by Dockweiler (1912). The map does not include wells that had been abandoned prior to 1910. The pattern of wells provides an Indication of the population density of the cities at the time. Oakland, Alameda Island, and Berkeley were well developed, while Richmond (founded in 1900), Hayward, and San Leandro were just beginning to develop.

According to the proposal authored by Councilmember Kriss Worthington and citizen activist L A Wood and supported by the Community Environmental Advisory Commission, the deep aquifer starts at the East Bay Hills and gets thicker and deeper to the west where it reaches depths greater than 300 feet. This deep aquifer is thought to be clean but insufficient to generate enough water for a municipality. This is the aquifer that was tapped by households during the early parts of the last century with hundreds of domestic wells. Many are still in existence. Over the years, the shallow aquifer has been impacted in Berkeley by leaking underground fuel tanks, leaking sewers and industrial pollutants. The amended plan states that Berkeley has no existing drinking water uses for the groundwater.

The document goes further to state that the lack of drinking water wells in Berkeley may be used as a reason to deny polluters the state funds to clean up fuel releases from underground tanks. It is for this reason that the city has proposed to survey groundwater resources for possible uses, such as emergency municipal and domestic drinking water sources for irrigation of landscaping and gardens and for industrial and commercial use.

Wood has played a key role in initiating dialogue about delving into groundwater resources. According to him, "round one" was addressing the containment zone policy -- essentially the assertion that if contaminants are left in place, they will take care of themselves by the process of natural biodegration. Wood considers the well-water issue to be round two in this battle. "We have to fight for our environment, even in Berkeley we have to fight," Wood added.

Al-Hadithy warns that with the existing funds the extent of what may be done is limited. He did say, however, that the potential of what could be done with wells is endless. They may be used to fight fires, irrigate land and perhaps even be used to augment the existing drinking water supply.

Wood referred to the allocation of $15,000 with decidedly more optimism."

It is symbolic, but its not just symbolic," he said. With the substantiation of the initial survey, matching funds from other sources may be achieved. "It will attempt to demystify wells and well water in Berkeley by going out and surveying all known wells, characterizing them for construction and sampling them. It will help empower individuals. It is a chance for Berkeley to take charge of something that we have dominion over. The process of our regulatory standards will change based on this."

John Selawsky, environmental commission chair, has his own take on the situation, but agrees with Wood's optimism. "Where there's a will there's a way," he said.

Selawsky added that it was up to Berkeley to move in the direction of a new way of looking at water resources and working out an emergency water use plan for its existing groundwater. He also added that some changes in the wording that the water control board has been using to classify groundwater does seem to allude to the fact that Berkeley may be in fact "moving in that direction"'

In 1910 there were 3,400 tapped wells in Berkeley. At that time, the presence of windmills and aboveground water sources were quite common. It was not until the 1920s and 1930s that households got into water contamination issues and started to rely on alternate sources of water. The existence of underground wells and aquifers, the quality of these sources and their yields is, therefore according to Wood, quite significant.

It will serve to validate the assertion that the chemical industry, inclusive of which are gasoline stations, have been leaking petroleum and contaminating groundwater. Looking at "groundwater as a potential drinking water source" will also give the environmental activist another bartering chip when negotiating cleanup issues with the city and industry.

According to L A Wood, the groundwater issue is the biggest little environmental project around because understanding groundwater is fundamental to every environmental issue.

"Everything will be impacted even the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and its sampling and environmental monitoring. Because now they won't be able to hide behind the assertion that no one uses the groundwater," Wood added. "People really have no idea just how far this meager little fifteen thousand dollars will go."

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