Of Birds and Humans 

Would fixing the flooding in West Berkeley hurt the fish in Aquatic Park?

Berkeley officials are studying a plan to improve circulation in the stagnant lagoons of Aquatic Park. They say the stale water kills fish, increases algae growth, and gives the park a distinctive odor that you can enjoy when you're speeding past on I-80. But environmentalists fear the plan will increase storm water runoff, killing fish and degrading the environment in one of the Bay Area's most important waterbird habitats.

Aquatic Park is Berkeley's largest city park, stretching along the western shoreline from Ashby Avenue to one block shy of University Avenue. The majority of the park is underwater, consisting of three man-made lagoons cut off from the bay eighty years ago by the construction of what is now the freeway. Their only outlets to the bay are a few aging and badly designed tide tubes that run under the freeway.

The lagoons host fish and invertebrates that feed a variety of visiting or permanent waterbirds. The park is one of the nicest places to bird-watch in Berkeley, and is a popular destination for kayaking, biking, and disc golf. But when it rains, the shoreline park becomes the last stop on the way to the bay for a hefty portion of the city's storm water runoff, which carries with it chemical pollutants as well as trash.

So Berkeley has begun an ambitious year-long project to look at possible changes to the park. Because a major component of the plan will likely include changes to the park's two main storm drains, elected officials and environmentalists talk about the plan in terms of moving more storm water off city streets. These drains currently carry the city's runoff to the bay and dump storm water into the lagoons when they get too full. Meanwhile, the project's official goals don't mention flood control and are restoring the natural habitat, enhancing the park's appearance, and improving water quality by increasing circulation with the bay.

But critics believe the costs of improved tidal circulation outweigh the benefits. "Almost any project that could be used to increase the tidal exchange with the bay could also be used to dump more storm water into the lagoons," said Golden Gate Audubon Society board member Phil Price, a former member of the city's Parks and Recreation Commission.

The flooding in West Berkeley is certainly serious. In December 2005, a so-called fifty-year flood occurred at high tide. Berkeley's ninety-year-old sewer and storm drain system was unable to handle the load, and the damage to homes and businesses just uphill of Aquatic Park was considerable. Helen Meyer of Meyer Sound on San Pablo watched in horror as the street turned into a river. The water came up over the sidewalk and through the front door of the building. It flowed down the halls of the state-of-the-art sound lab, into the offices, and out the back door. The floodwater included raw sewage and cleaning up the mess took days.

Steven Goldin also fought a daylong losing battle with the floodwater at two of his buildings near the park. Damages to his and his tenants' property were about $130,000, not including labor. Two years later, another storm almost did the same amount of damage, but Goldin was ready. With an eight-man crew he hired working alongside city employees, they were able to hold back most of the water.

So flood control is a high priority for some. "I don't want to see any storm water go into the lagoon, but if I have a choice between homes flooding in West Berkeley and businesses flooding in West Berkeley and some water going into the lagoon, to me that's a decision that we have to make in order to preserve and save the homes of West Berkeley," said Darryl Moore, the Berkeley councilman who represents the district uphill of the park.

But some environmentalists view runoff as a threat to the health of Aquatic Park. "Floodwaters bring vast amounts of trash, which choke the productive shallows where egrets and herons feed," said Mark Liolios, a cofounder of the group Aquatic Park EGRET, which organizes volunteers to plant trees, clean up garbage, and maintain vegetation in the park in coordination with the city. "Berkeley's runoff contains elevated levels of four toxic metals." Even clean storm water can kill the saltwater fish if there's too much of it.

Eighteen years ago, Liolios helped found EGRET — which stands for Environmental Greening, Restoration, and Education Team — to care for the native plants and trees along the shoreline of the park for the benefit of the waterbirds and the people who like to watch them. The group has been working to prevent the city from increasing the amount of storm water that spills into the lagoons. He believes widening the two main storm drains at either end of the park would result in more storm water entering the lagoons and destroying bird and fish habitat. "They will likely use it for storm water discharge to the maximum extent feasible," he said. He insists that the city has been pushing to dump more of its storm water into the park's lagoons for more than a decade.

And Liolios is not alone. "The proposal to widen the discharge outlets from the two storm drains that bracket the park is problematic and controversial, at best," reads a letter sent to the city council and the mayor, signed by Liolios as well as Norman La Force, Chair of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club, and Patricia Vaughan Jones of Citizens for East Shore Parks. "At worst, if these outlets are widened, toxic pollutants will be piped into the city's premier migratory waterbird habitat during the season the birds are in residence."

But city employees insist that environmentalists are mischaracterizing the plan. They say their goal is to improve tidal circulation between the lagoons of the park and the bay. Under existing conditions, it takes sixteen days for all of the water in the park to cycle out into the bay, which is too slow for a healthy aquatic environment, according to the hydrology expert hired by the city. This slow tidal exchange gets even worse after flooding from a so-called hundred-year storm, when it's estimated that it would take more than 48 days for all the storm water to make its way out of the park. Part of the plan the city is considering would make this tidal exchange about four times faster.

"It is highly likely that this will improve the bird habitat by improving the circulation and the oxygen content — improving the food source, not only the fish but the insect food source," said Parks Superintendent Sue Ferrera. "This really could be a big benefit to the habitat in this park, and these are things we'll know better as this process goes forward and we have studies that will determine this." The city has begun to study all of the different options under the plan, which won't be completed for another year.

"This is about trust," added William Rogers, Berkeley's director of parks, recreation, and waterfront. "My understanding about what the environmentalists' concerns are is that they don't trust the city, and their belief is that if we have the ability to control how much storm water goes into the lagoon, then we will choose to have more storm water go into the lagoon rather then less. ... Frankly, from my perspective, if we have the ability to control the amount of storm water that goes into the lagoon, we're actually in a better position because [part of the system] right now is broken and we can't control what happens."

Rogers admitted that the project could result in more storm water in the lagoons, but he emphasized that when it pours in Berkeley the water already ends up in Aquatic Park. It is, after all, downhill from about half of the city, and Rogers says the situation would be much improved if the project can in fact speed up tidal circulation with the bay. "To the extent that we can get water out of the lagoon more quickly, then that is much better for the ecosystem in Aquatic Park," he said.

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