Restoring East Bay Streams

Urban waterways are finding daylight after years of being covered up.


Shauna O’Connery, is a big fan of Lion Creek, a daylighted urban stream.

Photos by Dino Graniello

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Shauna O’Connery walks her dogs along a cattail-lined creek every day. She has spotted great blue herons there, along with shorebirds, raccoons, and even a family of ducks.

The creek is about 10 feet from her East Oakland front door. It’s just a few hundred yards from the glaring lights of the O.Co Coliseum. It runs right through the middle of a new affordable-housing complex that replaced a notoriously crime-ridden public housing project.

“This is awesome,” said O’Connery, a retired firefighter. “During the summer all these bushes have flowers and birds. You walk over the bridge, and it’s almost like its own little world.”

O’Connery’s “little world” is Lion Creek—or to be more precise, a block-long section of Lion Creek that was transformed in 2012 from a concrete-lined, trash-filled eyesore into a small oasis for people and wildlife.

It’s one of the most recent and dramatic successes in a 40-year movement to reclaim and restore the Bay Area’s urban creeks.

Once upon a time—back before the Gold Rush—the East Bay was lined with creeks running from the redwood-studded hills to the mudflats along the bay. Oakland alone had more than a dozen creeks fed by countless smaller tributaries.

But urban growth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries destroyed most of these creeks, enclosing them in underground pipes, or encasing them in concrete culverts. Houses rose where herons used to hunt frogs. Creeks became a hide-and-seek phenomenon, briefly visible in a park or backyard, then confined underground for a long stretch, then reappearing for a block or two before vanishing again.

Then, with the rise of the environmental movement in the 1970s, people started looking for nature in their neighborhoods. They organized creek cleanups and fought efforts to pave over the remaining creek fragments. Berkeley became a national model for urban creek restoration in 1984 when it “daylighted” 200 feet of Strawberry Creek, digging up the buried creek and letting it flow freely as the centerpiece of a park.

Creek restoration also received a boost from the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1987 that local governments needed to regulate urban runoff as part of the Clean Water Act. Creek advocates suddenly found more funding available for their clean-up and educational work. And flood control engineers started looking at alternatives to traditional pipes and culverts, including the use of wetlands to filter storm runoff.

In Oakland, the creek that has gotten the most sustained attention is Sausal Creek. Since 1996, Friends of Sausal Creek has worked with city officials to create a native plant demonstration garden and nursery, remove concrete debris, and revegetate stretches of the creek in Dimond Park. (See our March issue for a hike along Sausal Creek.)

But bits of other local creeks are also being reclaimed. Behind Piedmont Grocery on Monte Vista Avenue, a 1.5-block-long section of Glen Echo Creek was restored with native plants in the 1990s as part of a pocket park. Along Arroyo Viejo Creek at the Oakland Zoo, invasives like English ivy have been replaced with native vegetation that supports more diverse wildlife.

At Cesar Chavez Park in the Fruitvale District, Peralta Creek used to be largely buried in big, graffiti-covered pipes. But in the early 2000s, city officials removed those pipes and other concrete structures, regraded the banks, replaced a decaying pedestrian bridge, and planted willows and other native shrubs.

“At night I look for raccoons here,” said longtime neighborhood resident Rene Araña, wheeling his bike down to the creek while a Hutton’s vireo flitted overhead. “It’s nice here now. A long time ago, it was ugly.”

Despite such successes, creek restoration faces some big challenges. Not least is the reality of property ownership in a city: Many miles of former creeks lie under buildings or in private backyards. Engineering expenses can also be high. Even that small Cesar Chavez Park project cost more than $900,000.

Meanwhile, creek advocates have learned that restoration is not a one-time fix. Invasive plants grow back without continued weeding; trash builds up unless people continue to hold cleanup days. But most funding is available only on a one-time basis for capital projects.

“People have long defined restoration as you restart the natural processes, then step back and let nature take its course,” said Phil Stevens, executive director of the Urban Creeks Council. “That may work in some places, but not in cities.”

At Lion Creek Crossings, creek maintenance is being handled by a combination of city departments and housing complex staff. O’Connery pitches in with informal education, talking to the neighborhood kids about the birds, and in the spring, warning them not to disturb the duck nests.

“A lot of people here have rough lives,” she said. “This creek is such an oasis. The kids would not have an opportunity to see all this nature if it weren’t here.”

The Oakland Museum of California publishes a Creek & Watershed Map of Oakland & Berkeley, which is for sale at the museum store. The museum’s Guide to East Bay Creeks is available for free online.

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