Rebooting Urban Watersheds

Activists restore blighted Bay Area creeks -- and impoverished communities

  • Josh Bradt, watershed resources specialist with the city of Berkeley, walks along the raceway containing Wildcat Creek in the working-class neighborhood of Richmond, California.

    Singeli Agnew
  • Josh Bradt walks along the raceway containing Wildcat Creek.

    Singeli Agnew
  • Singeli Agnew
  • Some of the uninviting sites along the creek , which winds through a diverse cross-section of the urban environment, flowing under train tracks and busy intersections in graffiti-decorated concrete canals, meandering through reeds and willows at the base of city parks, and cutting dangerously into the banks below residential neighborhoods.

    Singeli Agnew
  • The wetlands where Wildcat and San Pablo creeks end, near the Chevron plant

  • A reclaimed area of Wildcat Creek, where thickets of willow trees provide shelter for wildlife and the shallow, solid banks are supported by native vegetation.

    Singeli Agnew
 

Folsom Avenue's low-lying yards are dotted with citrus trees slumping with fruit. Rows of grayish sandbags guard the foundations of dilapidated homes and line the bottoms of garage doors, foreshadowing floodwater.

We have just crossed Rumrill Boulevard from North Richmond into San Pablo, two working-class towns northeast of San Francisco. We've been tracing the overgrown course of Wildcat Creek upstream from its mouth near the junkyard at the corner of Gertrude Avenue and Richmond Parkway. Josh Bradt, a spry Berkeley-based stream restorationist, plods rapidly ahead, his mane of short dreadlocks snapping from side to side as we lurch along a weedy, garbage-choked easement. He's brought me out on a February afternoon to see what the muddle of industry, pollution and water engineering along two local waterways has done to the impoverished communities that surround them.

Bradt points to houses set four or five feet below the road, their driveways sloping downward. "The road is essentially the levee," he says. "In heavy rains, the water just runs down into the houses." We knock on the front door of one tidy bungalow, where a stout man named Everardo Navarro greets us. We ask him about Wildcat Creek, the innocuous-looking stream which runs along the back of his property. We mention the sandbags and ask if the block floods much.

"Yes," Navarro says. He tells us about the New Year's storm of 2006, which gutted the homes on the east side of his block. He taps his finger on the sill at the base of the door: "Just a little more and the water would have been inside," he says.

Most city residents give little thought to the creeks that run through culverts or along the scraggy margins at the edge of town. But restorationists like Bradt see these neglected waterways as key indicators for urban sustainability. In the Bay Area, as in other urban areas across the country, pollution, aging stormwater infrastructure and sprawl have increased the strain on nearly all of the city's waterways. To call the creeks in and around North Richmond "polluted," however, is to put it mildly. These creeks are dumping grounds.

A strong countercurrent of activism and research around water in the region has kept the plight of these streams in the public eye. In the mid-'70s and '80s, scientists and activists, many from neighboring Berkeley, turned their attention toward the neglected creeks and rivers in their own cities. Their work sparked the nation's first grassroots attempts to restore urban streams and protect community watersheds. In 1985, Berkeley restorationists achieved perhaps their most symbolic victory. They "daylighted" a buried stretch of Strawberry Creek, exhuming it from pipes and restoring it to a channel on the surface.

A 1987 amendment to the Clean Water Act forced local governments to curb urban runoff. To help cities meet the new requirements, watershed protection groups cropped up throughout the state and country, inspired by what was happening in the Bay Area. More than 50 such groups now operate in the East Bay counties of Alameda and Contra Costa alone. These groups have done more than just educate the public; they've marshaled the manpower for small restoration projects. Yet financial and logistical constraints have generally confined most urban creek restorations to wealthier communities, such as Los Gatos, San Luis Obispo and Pasadena.

Meanwhile, in the East Bay's poor industrial communities, progress has come in fits and starts. After a few early victories -- including the creation of the very first community watershed coalition here on Wildcat Creek -- the urban watershed movement collided with bleak economic and environmental realities.

Today, however, a new generation of Bay Area restorationists is working with renewed vigor to mobilize poor residents around their local waterways, on the premise that improving the local environment can also stimulate the local economy. In spite of the recent downturn, there are hints at federal, state and local levels of a sweeping green jobs initiative. It's a bold attempt to reconcile key ecological principles with the functions of the marketplace.

From an ecological standpoint, it couldn't be happening at a more critical time. In February, more than two dozen Bay Area streams were found to be in violation of the Clean Water Act. Collectively, these small streams have become a massive conveyor belt, sending vast quantities of trash and toxins into the Bay and Pacific Ocean.

The Urban Creeks Council, one of the region's most prominent groups, has taken a wide-scale approach to its troubled waterways, creating a comprehensive restoration plan for Wildcat and San Pablo creeks. Funded by a four-year, $750,000 state and federal grant, the proposal includes restoration of greenbelted stream channels and removal of invasive plants, not to mention summer jobs for local high schoolers. Phil Stevens, executive director of the Urban Creeks Council, says the concept represents something altogether new: a collaborative, sustainable model of urban watershed management. "This is basically ‘Creeks 2.0,' " said Stevens. "The idea is that we're not just doing a single restoration project and moving on, but looking at an integrated management model that could make the watershed an asset for the entire county."