Water Wise

Joshua Bradt stopped trying to do social work in Oakland when it became all too clear to him—at the time, a 24-year-old childless male—that he just wasn’t equipped to advise a single mother of four. “I realized I was not speaking about anything I knew,” he says.

But his bachelor of arts in political science and African-American studies hadn’t prepared him for his next move any more than it had prepared him for counseling. Bradt took a job as a field supervisor for the East Bay Conservation Corps. He worked with high school dropouts cleaning up trees, weeding, and removing garbage. The labor was exhausting, but even more challenging was getting the group of 16- to 22-year-olds to show up to work.

One of the Conservation Corps’ longtime sponsors was the Alameda County Flood Control and Water Conservation District. Bradt found his real calling when the Urban Creeks Council hired the Conservation Corps to do erosion control and planting for a creek restoration project. “We were building something rather than maintaining some other built infrastructure,” he explains. “This was us planting willows. This was us learning how water worked in the environment.” After completing the block-long project, Bradt felt there was a lot more work to be done. “I made it my goal to be the creek expert on staff,” he says.

Bradt attended as many creek workshops as he could, and since the goal of the Conservation Corps is not just to conserve but to teach, Bradt worked to become the best at what he calls “teachable moments.” He attended the Aquatic Outreach Institute’s workshops for teachers wanting to bring elementary school classrooms into the natural environment and integrated these lessons into his own fieldwork.

Some lessons, once learned, linger—and it is these that Bradt passes along. For instance, the conventional wisdom of the last fifty years, to widen creeks in anticipation of a hundred-year storm, causes more flooding than it prevents. Over-widening a stream fails to account for the fact that streams move not only water but dirt. If the dirt doesn’t move, it builds up and the stream clogs. The best approach is to create a smaller, meandering inner channel with room on either side for the stream to span out and rid itself of some of that dirt, followed by taller bank slopes.

And the best reference for restoring a creek is to find a naturally functioning creek with a similarly sized drainage area, slope, and meander. A natural creek can serve as a template for gauging an appropriate size and geometry for the inner channel.

When Bradt left the Conservation Corps, he was hired the next day by the Urban Creeks Council (UCC), where he’s been working for seven of the past eight years. UCC aims “to preserve, protect and restore creeks and riparian habitats,” meaning its mission encompasses everything from working with lawmakers in Sacramento to fighting for no-build zones near creeks. But it only receives government grant funding for creek restoration projects and technical support services offered to creek-side property owners, not for long-term maintenance or public education.

UCC staff necessarily spend a lot of time networking and grant writing. Of course, Bradt says his favorite part is standing “with my feet wet and using my brain to try to understand how things are working. I’m a restoration practitioner,” he says. “I’m trying to bone up on the science part.”

If you ask him why he became so devoted to creeks, he’ll tell you that it must have something to do with his dad’s fascination with moving water. For hours on end, Bradt says, his dad “would just sit and watch the water and drink whatever was in his mason jar.”

But Bradt says he only really understood his father’s obsession after moving to the Bay Area and learning about its unique topography. Small, spring-fed streams run through the hills and skip through people’s backyards. “[Creeks] are the most local, most shared community resource I can think of besides the roads,” Bradt says. “Just because [one] goes through someone’s backyard doesn’t make it his creek.” But Bradt believes it is that person’s responsibility to steward the creek: “Water is part of the public trust.”

That’s why the UCC offers free home and site visits to give advice about stabilizing creek banks. Often, Bradt says, nearby urban development will cause water to run faster through waterways, and people feel that they have to react to the problem on their own. The UCC tries to teach people the solution of “soil bioengineering.”

When Bradt refers to bioengineering, he doesn’t mean genetic manipulation. He means creating structure and limiting erosion by densely planting native riparian plants—willows, alders, and cottonwoods— rather than constructing concrete walls.

Another teachable fact, according to Bradt: In addition to holding the soil, roots create friction that slows water, making it less of a threat to the banks. Trees and plants provide a shady canopy and habitat, and the root system sucks toxins out of urban runoff, which helps purify water. “Plus,” Bradt adds about plants, “they’re pretty—the ecological value, structural value, and aesthetic value—they all work with each other.”

Beautification is not to be underrated. It’s an important aspect of the UCC’s efforts to brighten low-income communities and provide them with a space where they can reengage with nature. “You can create a healthier local environment in blighted sections of town,” Bradt says. “In communities that don’t have a lot of resources, you can dig up a creek from a pipe and make a green space where there hasn’t been one for fifty years.” And so through environmental work, Bradt achieves what he first intended when he came out of college: social justice.

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