What it takes to restore and maintain an urban creek
This story aired in the June 13, 2023 episode of Crosscurrents.
Click the play button above to hear this story
Codornices Creek carries water from the North Berkeley Hills west to the Bay. Along the way, it passes between private homes and through public parks. In Live Oak Park, it curves through a shady grove of trees.
Julie Dennison and Claire McDowell are lifelong best friends and Berkeley natives, and they’re chatting at a picnic table next to the creek. Julie has fond memories of Codornices Creek from her childhood. She grew up in a home just east of the park in the sixties. She says, “The creek was our playground, and just, there was no fences, so the neighborhood kids would just all kinda gather to the creek, run up and down the creek building forts, building dams.”
Claire grew up in the flats further west, but she remembers coming here, to Live Oak Park, as a teenager in the seventies. She says, “We’d hang out here for hours at night, and the creek was just part of everything. It was a little romantic place to get away.
West of Live Oak, Codornices Creek flows back onto private land, but in many places it’s still visible from the street, like where it passes underneath Bonita Avenue. Deborah Kropp has lived next to the creek here since 1987, and she and her family have loved it. She says, “We’ve had wonderful wildlife come by, from raccoons and deer. And it’s quite exciting when there are storms. There have been a few times over the years where it’s overflowed its bank and flowed on top of Bonita Avenue and gone down.”
Still further west, Codornices Creek becomes the boundary between the Cities of Berkeley and Albany. It flows mostly between private properties along this border until it passes under Kains Avenue.
Here, there’s a green fence with a locked gate and a sign that reads ‘Kain Street Codornices Creek Park.’ The sign says the park is open every other Saturday, but Elise Obelensky, who lives down the street, says she hasn’t really been in to use it. She did attend the grand opening in 2022, though. She says, “My son came, too, and we helped plant some plants.”
She says it would be fun to take her son there again, but right now, she’s actually in a rush to get her dog home, so she can go pick up her son from school. I come here on another afternoon to meet Josh Bradt. He helps administer the California Urban Streams Partnership, which is a nonprofit that aims to protect and restore urban streams.
The organization had a big role in making this park a reality, which means Josh can let me in to see it. To the right, Codornices Creek emerges from a culvert beneath Kains Avenue and bends north. But it’s barely visible beneath the young willows that line its banks.
Josh says, “Willow’s always kind of the very first thing that we put in because you can put it in as just a cutting, and it will turn into a tree. It’s an instant tree. You can just make basically a big long nail out of a branch and pound it in, and this is what it will turn into.”
Josh didn’t hammer in any willows here, but he knows all about the process from previous projects. He got started in this line of work back in the nineties when he was working with the California Conservation Corps. He says, “We were able to learn how to harvest willow, turn them into those posts, do that, what’s called soil bioengineering, using plants and plant systems to stabilize the creek banks.”
Stabilizing the creek bank is a necessary step in projects like these where older infrastructure must be removed to return the creek to a more natural state. Here, the culvert was cut back to the street, and failing concrete side walls were taken out.
Now, the creek looks restored to me, but the park’s still not open to residents like Elise and her son. Josh says the City of Berkeley is probably still figuring out the budget and schedule for ongoing operations and maintenance. In the meantime, residents can walk along the older restored stretches of Codornices Creek downstream. That’s where Josh was when he was working with the California Conservation Corps.
We cross San Pablo Avenue on Harrison Street. If we walked a block north we could pick up the creek again, but there are fences that block access to it for a stretch. Instead we take Harrison west. At Eighth Street, there’s a large encampment running down the opposite side of the road. Someone has painted a message on a mattress. It reads, ‘Thank you for your patience! Recovery is messy.’
Past the encampment, we turn right and find Codornices Creek again. It’s shady here. Josh says, “Those little willows you saw at the other spot will be this … and they will become trees like that.”
Josh points out the snake-like curvature of the creek and says the restoration was designed that way. He says, “If it’s just going straight, it’s going fast, and it’s probably just digging and pushing dirt. If it’s got this, its energy is kind of regulated. It’s dropping dirt.”
Josh talks about the creek like it’s an engineering problem. Achieving the desired function just requires selecting the correct parameters. But he also knows that creeks don’t just exist to move water. He says, “More often, what’s most important is the tradeoffs that need to happen with the community around it.”
We walk further downstream on a paved trail next to fields where youth teams are playing sports. When the pavement ends, there’s a sign that reads ‘No Camping’. Josh says, “One of the biggest challenges right now is … just the unhoused populations and people who need a safe place to be and often it’s just away from eyes. And so creeks become that. If that’s gonna continue to be the case, we have to figure out how to work with that.
Back at the road, I see a man looking into the creek from his wheelchair. He turns down his speaker to talk to me, and he says they call him Bobo. He says, “Wherever I go, anytime I get by the water, I sit there for a minute because it’s always peaceful.”
Further east on the path, I run into Sis Tar. She takes care of children for a living, and right now she’s pushing a stroller while a child rides on a small tricycle and refuses her suggestion to add graffiti to the wall opposite the creek. She says she’s been coming here for fifteen years. She says, “It’s magical, it’s mystical, it’s electrical, it’s magnetic. And this is a place I take people from all over the Bay to visit.”
Sis tells me how she admires the work of the Friends of the Five Creeks. They’re a volunteer group that works to restore and maintain the East Bay creeks. On Tuesday morning, I tag along with their Weekday Weed Warriors.
A group of women have gathered at Susan Schwartz’s car. She’s the president of the Friends of the Five Creeks, and she’s parked upstream of where I walked with Josh and spoke to Bobo and Sis, closer to San Pablo Avenue. She directs the show and tells people what supplies to take. She says, “More soil knives, and a few extra gloves, because someone may show up.”
Susan says the University of California put up the tall chain link fences that enclose this stretch of Codornices Creek. There’s graduate student housing running along the north side of the creek, and according to Susan, Cal erected the fence after heavy rains drove away an encampment of unhoused people. We have to walk from Susan’s car to a gate to access the creek. Along the way, one of the Weed Warriors tells me a bit about herself, until Susan cuts in to point out a western bluebird. She says, “Oh, this has made my whole morning in spite of everything.”
Another volunteer, who’s not present today, put up birdhouses along the creek, and his apparent success in attracting birds brings Susan out of her sciatica-induced funk. While we admire the bluebird, a biker stops to talk. His name is Tim Pine, and he’s an environmental specialist employed by UC Berkeley. Susan knows him well, and she asks him about the creek downstream.
Tim says, “Uh, yeah, actually I was over here. There’s a homeless encampment over by the graduate student housing that caught fire, and then they dumped fire suppression water on it, and it impacted the creek.”
Susan responds, “Oh, god. Oh, god. Well, they don’t have any trout, so…” Back in 2019, foam used to put out a garbage truck fire got into Codornices Creek and killed a lot of steelhead trout. I talk briefly with Tim, but Susan doesn’t wait. She marches her team through the gate and directs them to remove all the invasive oat grass they see.
She admonishes the volunteers, “Guys, you’re missing oats.” Then she adds, “I’m definitely gonna dock your pay.”
Weeding strikes me as a never ending chore, but it is nice by the creek.