Everyday Orinda – February 2019

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A Riparian Fixer Upper: the Proposed Transformation of San Pablo Creek

    Raise your hand if you’ve heard about “restoring the creek” in downtown Orinda but have never been quite sure where to find this much-discussed San Pablo Creek. If your hand is waving, don’t feel silly. You are not alone.
    I assumed the area being considered was the slightly visible portion of this creek that flows past Camino Encinas, near the buildings that house Atma Yoga, Orinda Florist and ALMA Music. I always questioned how and why anyone would develop that for public enjoyment since it appeared kind of steep and bordered the Highway 24 exit ramp.
    So, either I’ve not been a very observant passenger, or I have been extremely attentive to the road because until recently, I never realized San Pablo Creek continues its route alongside Camino Pablo, the busy, four-lane thoroughfare Moraga Way turns into once you pass under Highway 24. Understandably, I have been preoccupied, frantically pumping my imaginary floorboard brakes as my teenagers learned to drive, crafting my mental list of what I needed at Safeway or counting the seconds till I picked up my savory takeout from Szechwan and busted into the eggrolls. I never once noticed that behind all of those roadside trees and dense brush, a concealed waterway flows north, toward the San Pablo Reservoir.
    Currently, this portion of the creek, which runs from the Chevron station to Safeway, is inaccessible to the public. “Chain link fencing and dense shrubbery make the creek difficult to observe or explore,” explains Bob Stoops, president of the Friends of Orinda Creeks (FOOC) organization. But that has not stopped FOOC volunteers from regularly monitoring and recording water quality and habitat health, nor has it encumbered the studies of engineering firms who, over the years since 2001, have worked on a proposal to restore the creek to its former glory.
    “Back in the ‘50s, it was all about concrete,” Stoops elucidates. “Developers determined the best approach to convert the land near the creek into retail property was to eliminate the creek’s natural ‘meander’ by paving and rerouting it in a straight line bordered by parking lots on one side and Camino Pablo on the other.” The proper term for this is “channelizing.”
    Cue thunder and lightning, and replay the old Chiffon Margarine commercials from the ‘70s that proclaimed, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!” Within a few years, the first heavy rains upended and demolished the concrete slabs. Authorities learned the hard way the meander slowed down the forceful flow of water. Large, unsightly chunks of concrete remain in the creek bed today and continue to degrade.
    “One of the goals of the proposed restoration is to return the natural meander to the creek,” Stoops clarifies, “while also providing embankment stability and increased flood control to protect downtown businesses.”
    Other visionary goals include adding aesthetic enhancements, paths and bridges to connect to area hiking trails, and a venue for Orindans to relax effortlessly while connecting with nature. Stoops says cities are finally realizing that highlighting nature’s amenities, especially a waterway, increases charm and magnetism. And, in turn, let’s be practical here, property values.
    Stoops and Paul Bettelheim, Past President of Lamorinda Sunrise Rotary, a partner organization supporting this project, emphasize the significant difference between creek beautification and restoration. “To be clear,” Stoops maintains, “Our plan is to restore. We could come in, pull out the poison oak and the old concrete slabs and say we have beautified the creek. But what we have spent time and money on, and worked with engineers and council members to develop, is a complete restoration plan.”
    Stoops elaborated on the many financial advantages to transforming the creek into a usable community asset. In addition to the crucial matter of flood control, he believes the project would contribute significantly to the goals to revitalize the downtown area, which, according to stakeholder interviews conducted in 2017 by the Urban Land Institute (UIL) is widely supported by the Orinda community. Supporters, as well as the UIL study, predict the transformation would increase land values and revenue for the business community, with opportunities to provide creek-side coffee, food and picturesque Instagram moments to draw visitors and customers to the area.
    Bettelheim and Stoops also expound on the engineering and ecological benefits to restoration, such as controlling erosion and providing stream bank stabilization. Both will augment the habitat for wildlife to thrive. “This creek used to be full of salmon and rainbow and steelhead trout,” Stoops points out. “Another element of the restoration plan is to bring the creek back to the point where it can support fish and wildlife.”
    The Restore San Pablo Creek website explains how the health of creek habitat is closely connected to the health of our watershed. Concern for the health of our watershed was one of the primary reasons the FOOC was founded in 1994.
    Stoops estimates it will take at least another year or more to implement the plans. “I feel we will eventually get the funding we need,” Stoops adds optimistically after intimating that funding is the one thing that leaves plans problematic. “Members of the community are very supportive of the concept, but, naturally, people and businesses are hesitant to donate until they know something is actually going to happen with this project.”
    The estimated budget for the plan’s development is $55,000 with current fundraising, according to Stoops, totaling around $20,000. He sees this progress as a good reason to be positive. According to the Restore San Pablo Creek website, the Waterways Restoration Institute concludes this section of creek could be restored for a total cost less than that of constructing a new concrete channel.
    “In addition to funding, the other critical piece we need is leadership and active involvement from our city council, especially in the area of obtaining grants and permits, and negotiating the new easements for the conversion of the creek,” Stoops says. “We are just a volunteer organization. We need the negotiating power of the city government behind us.”
    The action plan is taking shape. In October, an engineering design firm, FlowWest of Berkeley, was selected from among two other contenders to develop the “Next Level Design Plan.”
    Curious about this creek? This area can be safely observed from the back corner of the Safeway parking lot. To learn more about the project visit www.RestoreSanPabloCreek.org. For more information about Friends of Orinda Creeks, visit www.OrindaCreeks.org.
    Bommarito can be reached at mimibom@comcast.net.

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