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."

High Country News Classifieds
  • PHILANTHROPY COORDINATOR
    Wyoming Wildlife Federation - collaborates with the Executive Director and staff to ensure the effective implementation of all philanthropic activities. https://wyomingwildlife.org/hiring-philanthropy-coordinator/.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    HawkWatch International is hiring an Executive Director to lead the organization. The next leader of this growing organization must have: 1. Enthusiasm for conservation, birds...
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Home Resource is a non-profit community sustainability center. We work with, in, and for the community to reduce waste and build a more vibrant and...
  • COUNTRY ESTATE NEAR KINGS CANYON AND SEQUOIA PARKS
    Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • BRN DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Borderlands Restoration Network 501c3 is hiring a full-time Development Director. Description and job details can be found at https://www.borderlandsrestoration.org/job-opportunities.html
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST NEW MEXICO
    Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921
  • ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNING MANAGER
    The City of Fort Collins is seeking an Environmental Planning Manager in the Natural Areas Department. The Department has an annual budget of approximately $13...
  • WEB DESIGN AND CONTENT MANAGER
    We are seeking an experienced designer to be the team lead for web development and digital media. Part creator and part planner, this person should...
  • CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER
    at RCAC. See the full description at https://bit.ly/2WJ3HvY Apply at [email protected]
  • GRASSROOTS ORGANIZER
    The Utah Rivers Council is looking for an energetic individual with strong communication and organizing skills. The Grassroots Organizer works to ensure our campaigns are...
  • JOHN DEERE SNOW BLOWER 24"
    Newly refurbished and tuned. Older model, great condition. Gasoline engine. Chains on tires. Heavy duty for mountain snow. Call cellphone and leave message or email.
  • CARPENTER RANCH MANAGER
    Hiring a part-time ranch manager to live on The Nature Conservancy's Carpenter Ranch property in Hayden, CO. Responsibilities include: facility maintenance of historic ranch house,...
  • STRAW BALE, ADOBE, TIMBER FRAME, HEALTHY HOME, NEAR LA VETA PASS, CO
    unique custom home in Sangre de Cristo Mountains of CO near La Veta Pass, 3 bed, 2 1/2 bath, private gated park, two hours from...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KANIKSU LAND TRUST
    Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Flathead Lakers are seeking a dynamic, self-motivated and proven leader to be our next Executive Director (ED).
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Blackfoot Challenge, a renowned collaborative conservation org in MT, seeks our next ED.
  • COPPER CANYON MEXICO CAMPING & BACKPACKING
    10-day tour from Los Mochis airport, 2/nyts El Fuerte, train, 2/nyts canyon rim hotel, 5/nyts camping. 520-324-0209, www.coppercanyontrails.org.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, ALASKA
    Earthjustice is hiring for a Staff Attorney
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    to lead an organization that funds projects in National Parks. Major gift fundraising and public lands experience critical. PD and app details @ peopleinparks.org.