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East Bay Express: Fixing Berkeley's watershed

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Nate Seltenrich

As is the case in many other cities in the Bay Area and across the country, Berkeley's stormwater infrastructure is in sad shape. But help could be on the way. On Election Day, Berkeley voters overwhelmingly supported Measure M, a $30 million bond aimed at street and watershed improvements. The city also recently completed environmental review of its 2011 Watershed Management Plan, a one-hundred-page document outlining the problems facing the city's infrastructure and offering a mix of solutions.

Most of Berkeley's 93 miles of storm drain pipelines are nearing or past their projected expiration dates. The system operates at or near its water-carrying capacity, meaning the pipes are not only too old but also too small. On top of that, tidal effects from the bay compound drainage issues in the southwestern portion of the city as far inland as Adeline Street. "All of the infrastructure is aging and coming to the end of its useful service," said Phil Harrington, the city's Deputy Director of Public Works.

The result is frequent localized flooding throughout the Berkeley flats and the degradation of local waterways and habitats from high volumes of polluted runoff. In the city's largest watershed, Potter — which drains one-third of Berkeley's land area — the lagoons at Aquatic Park bear the brunt of runoff, receiving an influx of stormwater nearly every time it rains. Stormwater can carry heavy metals, chemicals, trash and biodegradable organics, oil and grease, bacteria and viruses, and excessive sediment and nutrients, all of which do more damage at Aquatic Park than they would through dilution in the bay. And improper discharge of stormwater into city creeks can cause stream bank erosion, damage to aquatic habitat, flooding, and groundwater depletion.

Berkeley's Watershed Management Plan was developed as a response. But it's only the first link in a long chain of events that will need to happen before the city's most serious problems can be addressed. As city spokeswoman Mary Clunies-Ross put it, the watershed plan isn't prescriptive. While many of the solutions it proposes in the Potter watershed and in North Berkeley's Codornices watershed — the only two of Berkeley's eleven watersheds studied with any level of detail — are concrete, the rest of the plan is largely hypothetical. The intent, Clunies-Ross explained, was not to lay out a rigid approach, but to develop a rough blueprint allowing the city to pursue funding: Berkeley won't be able to firm up its plan without knowing how much it can spend.

That's where Measure M comes in. The measure will generate $30 million in tax revenue to be used for street improvements and integrated green infrastructure such as rain gardens, bioswales, bioretention cells, and permeable paving, to "reduce flooding and improve water quality in the creeks and bay."

Read more at EastBayExpress.com