The Way to Daylight

For more than 50 years, Poinsett Park was a 250-foot-long triangle of grass, squeezed on a hillside between Rosalind and Poinsett Avenues in El Cerrito, California. The park covered a culvert that had Baxter Creek running through it. By the late 1980s, when the culvert started to fail and city officials planned to replace the park’s storm drain, local residents had another idea: uncover 250 feet of the creek — “daylight” it.
In 1996, engineers replaced the culvert with a straight,  V-shaped channel lined with rock. Neighbors and environmentalists protested. They wanted a creek, not a drainage ditch. The city brought in the Watershed Restoration Institute, a Berkeley restoration design firm, to redo the project.
Over time the creek emerged, with gently sloping banks, rocks, and barriers forming a meandering stream. The twists and turns help slow the current to stop erosion, holding back water to prevent flooding during storms. The institute planted native willows, dogwoods, ninebark, currant bushes and white alders to stabilize the banks with intertwined roots, holding the soil in place.
The daylighting of Baxter Creek is part of a national movement, with its roots in the East Bay. In 1984, Berkeley residents and others uncovered 200 feet of Strawberry Creek at Strawberry Creek Park, one of the first high-profile openings of a creek anywhere in the US, and a model for the rest of the nation. More followed. In 1994, residents daylighted 400 feet of Codornices Creek between 8th and 9th Streets in Berkeley. A year later, 200 feet of unearthed Blackberry Creek at Thousand Oaks School became a living environmental sciences classroom for students. And in 1998, 900 feet of Village Creek were opened up in the University Village housing complex on the border of Berkeley and Albany. Nationwide, at least 20 creeks have undergone some degree of daylighting, according to the Snowmass, Colorado–based Rocky Mountain Institute.
Like those restoration projects, Poinsett Park shows that there’s more to daylighting than ripping out culverts. Long after the backhoes and hammers broke up the concrete and dug a new channel at Baxter Creek, neighborhood groups continued to learn about native species, what it would take to bring them back to the creek, and how to keep them there. Keeping Baxter Creek alive and healthy would require vigilance and commitment. “Long-term maintenance is not always addressed in stream restoration,” says Josh Bradt,  Executive Director of the Berkeley-based Urban Creeks  Council. “[It’s] the critical issue.”
Restoring Baxter Creek required patience, too. It took a few years for trees to grow to 15 or 20 feet, tall enough to cool the water and shade out sun-loving weeds that can choke a creek by growing right in the streambed. As the trees grew, smaller bushes and flowers began to flourish underneath.
The work, and the patience, have paid off. Now, Baxter Creek meanders through 250 feet of restored riparian habitat, down a steep slope between rocks and tree roots, shaded by native trees and flanked by a dense growth of native and introduced flowers and shrubs like poppies, lavender, butterfly bush, and native roses. Birds come in droves — American goldfinches, robins, black phoebes, bushtits, cedar waxwings, house finches, juncos, mourning doves, western bluebirds and hummingbirds. Insect life is flourishing too. Dragonflies hover near the creek, as do water striders, along with a range of butterflies: Lorquin’s admirals, red admirals, mourning cloak, painted ladies, and all kinds of skippers. A struggling population of Pacific chorus frogs makes its home there, filling the air with its “ricket ricket” on a warm summer afternoon.
By far, the most conspicuous animal beneficiaries of the creek daylighting projects have been birds.  At Poinsett Park alone, watchers have seen at least a dozen different local species of birds, and even a great horned owl. Over at Blackberry Creek in Berkeley, Ann Riley, executive director of the Waterways Restoration Institute, arrived with visitors from the US Environmental Protection Agency on a recent tour just in time to spy a Cooper’s hawk hunting from a big buckeye tree.
Researchers at the Coyote Creek Riparian Station in San Jose found that even small fragments of good creek habitat are important rest stops for migratory birds commuting between Canada and Mexico along the Pacific Flyway. The berries and bugs available at a daylighted piece of creek can make all the difference for a bird trying to reach his or her winter refuge. “In an urban landscape,” said Lisa Viani, conservation and outreach coordinator for the Urban Creeks Council, “even these little patches are critical for the birds.”
But activists may never be able to replicate the East Bay of 150 years ago, crisscrossed by miles of free-flowing streams running down from the foothills to meet the San Francisco Bay, supporting a rich diversity of plants and animals. Most East Bay creeks now flow through dark and decaying pipes, converted to storm drains from the 1930s to the 1950s. Where the habitat hasn’t been paved over, it’s been edged out by aggressive invasive plants from around the world like English ivy, Himalayan blackberry, Scotch broom, annual grasses, and fennel. Not only are these plants inedible to most native fauna, they crowd out the native plants. Runoff of petroleum, pesticides, detergents, and other toxic substances compounds the damage.
And the damage has left its mark on native fauna. Steelhead trout, for example, once ran in the thousands up and down most area waterways from the Bay to the hills. They now exist only in isolated remnant populations in a few local creeks.
But that doesn’t deter creek restorationists. “The big push,” says Marilyn Latta, of the Oakland-based Save the Bay, “is to see if daylighting will work to bring back some habitat for the rainbow trout and steelhead.”
At Codornices Creek, locals have seen their daylighting project become home to a variety of fish species — California roach, Sacramento sucker, and threespine stickleback — as well as many types of birds, some frogs, a few garter snakes, and at least one very, very big crawdad. Steelhead have been spotted there, and the Urban Creeks Council has received a grant from the state of California  to study ways to improve habitat and remove migration  barriers for the ocean-going trout.
Whether or not a stretch has been daylighted, creek restoration is not easy. Pets can tear up a complex natural area, as can government maintenance workers who aren’t trained to know the difference between native and non-native plants. Miscommunication between restoration teams can trip up a project too. Over at Codornices Creek, for example, volunteers carefully reshaped the banks and planted them with willows and other natives, only to see their work bulldozed by another volunteer group. Broken sewer lines or unforeseen discharges of chlorinated water, or even very hot water, can sweep through and kill off a whole generation of creek fauna. The neighborhood’s human residents present the worst threats, however, just by washing their cars, changing their oil, or spraying pesticides on their lawns. Those chemicals wash through storm drains and into the creek, leaving a steady stream of poison for fish, bugs, and amphibians.
By the same token, neighbors can also be a creek’s biggest ally. “That’s really the critical thing after you do a restoration,” said Bradt, “you need to pass it back to the community and make sure there’s someone on the ground there who’s on top of it.”
At Baxter Creek, they’re on top of it. Neighbors make angry calls to the city when maintenance crews approach the creek with weed whackers or herbicides, and recently  convinced the city to leave most of the park’s maintenance up to them. “We’d prefer to take care of it ourselves than have it turned into a [weed-whacked] football field,” said Lisa Swelha, a Poinsett Park neighbor.
Urban Creeks Council’s Lisa Viani says the creeks are “well worth the work. Plus they’re just so much more beautiful to look at than a patch of grass.”
Creeks offer many benefits to urban areas. They filter out pollution from urban runoff before it reaches the Bay. They provide habitat corridors for animals like deer, birds, and fish to get from one feeding ground to another. They offer peaceful retreats for humans. The green plants improve air quality by filtering toxics and producing more oxygen, and reduce traffic noise in neighborhoods.
So why aren’t more concrete-entombed creeks being daylighted? Many other proposed creek projects have never gotten off the ground — for example the continually debated unearthing of Strawberry Creek through downtown Berkeley.
“The main obstacle to daylighting is really land ownership,” said Viani. “If the creek is on private property and the landowner is not interested, that’s a huge obstacle.” Berkeley urban ecologist Richard Register has one answer. He says thoughtful planning incentives could convince property owners to facilitate daylighting. With a “transfer of development rights” (TDR) program as encouragement, he says, a developer could buy a building, remove it to restore the creek, then get approval to build more units in the downtown area than would normally be allowed.
Increased density may bring its own set of questions [see page 13]. “[But] if we can’t do TDRs,” says Register, “then we won’t be able to daylight any more in Berkeley. We’ve gotten 600 feet daylighted since 1981. At this rate it will take over 5,000 years to daylight the creek system here.”
In any case, the effort to restore the East Bay’s creeks may benefit from the stroke of timing that helped Baxter Creek: At least in Berkeley, many of the storm drains channeling approximately eight to ten miles of creeks were built 50 to 70 years ago.
“I would say that at least a third are in very bad shape, and another third need to be looked at in the next ten years,” said Rene Cardinaux, director of public works for the City of Berkeley. As the storm drains fail and have to be dug up for repair, citizens may be able to convince local government to daylight those sections instead of replacing the culverts. This may not be feasible in all situations, but it could help some creeks see the light of day again.
For now, neighbors can enjoy the fruits of the first daylighting efforts.
Six years ago, George McRae moved into his house a block away from Poinsett Park, and has become one of the project’s biggest fans. McRae visits the creek daily and has watched its evolution with fascination. Recently he led a small party of neighbors through the lush undergrowth on the banks of Baxter Creek, looking for his latest discovery.
The neighbors gather around and “Oooh” and “Aaah” over a tiny green plant near the water’s edge. It’s a California stream orchid, a native. This one popped up on its own near the creek without the help of humans, a rare thing for native plants in the East Bay these days.
“One way to look at these projects is like beads on a string,” said Viani. “You seize the opportunities when you have them, do the project when you can, and fill in the gaps later.”

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