This afternoon I went to a meeting of the Aquatic Park Subcommittee of the Berkeley Parks and Recreation Commission. The Subcommittee was considering a plan, crafted by a consultant (Laurel Marcus and Associates) to use a $1.5 million grant from the Coastal Conservancy to enhance wildlife habitat in Aquatic Park. (That’s the long park down by the freeway, parallel to I-80). This was the thirteenth subcommittee meeting on this topic! I’m very familiar with the proposal, since I have attended all of the previous meetings as a member of the Subcommittee. (I had to drop off in order to join the board of Golden Gate Audubon, since the times of the Parks and Rec Comission meetings unfortunately conflict with the GGA meetings). So this was the first subcommittee meeting at which I was just another member of the public.
Here’s the deal: Water quality in the park is poor. During summer, the north end of the park has very high water temperatures and low dissolved oxygen levels, below the level that fish generally require (although they can tolerate low levels for a brief period). In winter, the problem is maybe slightly less severe in the north end of the park, but the dissolved oxygen levels get pretty low through the whole park. There is a clear tidal cycle: as water from the bay flows in, the oxygen level goes up, and when bay water stops flowing in the level declines.
Water enters and leaves Aquatic Park through (1) 5 “main tide tubes” under the freeway, (2) a connection to the Potter Street storm drain, which in turn connects to the bay, and (3) a connection from the Strawberry Creek storm drain, that allows storm water in during high storm flows.
The basic problem is that there is not enough flow between Aquatic Park and the Bay. The residence time of water in the park is pretty long, so the water loses most of its dissolved oxygen. It would be extremely expensive to tunnel under the freeway to install new culverts, so we’re pretty much stuck with what we got.
But the consultants did figure out a way to get a lot more flow: make a much bigger connection between the Potter Creek storm drain and the “Model Yacht Basin” (the smallish middle lagoon in the park), and then make a big connection between the Model Yacht Basin and the Main Lagoon. (I suppose I need to mention that the elevations are such that at high tide, bay water flows up the Potter Street storm drain and into the Model Yacht Basin, and at low tide it goes the other way). By removing the bottlenecks, there would be a lot more flow, leading to lower water temperatures and higher dissolved oxygen levels. Hopefully that means more fish, and thus more food for birds.
The problem is that allowing more bay water to enter through the Potter Street culvert would also allow more polluted stormwater runoff from Berkeley’s streets to enter during storms. That’s bad because (1) the stormwater carries all the crap from the streets, like oil and brake-lining material and trash, and (2) the stormwater is fresh water, which forms a freshwater layer on top of the salt/brackish water of the lagoon, cutting the salt water off from oxygen. So, the proposal is to put automated gates on the entrance from the culvert, so that the maximum storm flow into the park would be no higher than it is now.
I think that if the system is in fact installed and operated as described, this would indeed be a big improvement over current conditions. The problem is, I have little confidence that the system would be operated as described: rather than operating the system to optimize habitat, I think other considerations may play a big role, like minimizing maintenance costs and minimizing flooding, and that if the system is used for those purposes instead, it could potentially even make things worse than before. At my suggestion, the Subcommittee decided to recommend that the proposed project should be redefined so that it would be operated so as to not allow any stormwater entry through the Strawberry or Potter Street culverts. Other proposals, such as allowing the current amount in, could be alternatives to consider in the environmental review process. Of course, just because the project is defined a certain way doesn’t guarantee that the City will actually operate it that way.
The three-member subcommittee voted 2-1 in favor of bringing the project to the full commission for consideration: the item up for consideration is whether to recommend the project for review under CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act), which would entail an environmental review and could result in modifying the project. If the full commission agrees, then the recommendation to start the CEQA process would go to the City Council in the next month or two.
There are some other elements to the project, by the way, including removal of some invasive non-native plants and replacement with natives, and installing some quasi-experimental bio-swales to deal with some runoff that comes directly from nearby streets. Those elements are pretty non-controversial, but they’re also rather small beer in terms of the expected environmental benefits.
Personally, I’m in favor of proceeding with review of the project and I would have voted Yes if I were still on the subcommittee. I do have reservations, but the fact is, any project that can bring in more bay water will also have the possibility of bringing in more stormwater if not managed correctly. That means that if we want to ever improve the marginal water quality at the park, we just have to do something like this, and make it work as far as maintenance and operation. Otherwise we stumble along forever with dissolved oxygen levels barely sufficient to support fish and the birds that feed on them. But we, the environmental community, need to be all over this like vultures on a carcass, to make sure the City does what it’s supposed to do, now and long into the future. Eternal vigilance is the price of…well, not liberty, in this case, but a healthy environment.
The full meeting of the Parks and Recreation Commission will take place in the North Berkeley Senior Center at 7:00 PM. I hope people will come out and express concerns about allowing stormwater to enter the lagoons, just to make sure the City understands that people care about this. (I’ve co-categorized this entry under “activism” for this reason).