Anomalies of Sausal Creek: The Delta

This is the last of four posts about Sausal Creek from the hills to the Bay focusing on its odd features, stuff that’s been bugging me like a seed stuck in a tooth. Here I’ll talk about the creek segment below Foothill Boulevard, where the floodplain ends and the delta begins.

A delta is a wedge of sediment, built near a river’s mouth where it deposits most of its muddy load. Streams tend to spread out in their deltas, sending sediment here and there like a Vegas card dealer. While the mouth of a big river like the Mississippi or the Nile fans out in a set of multiple distributaries, little streams like Sausal Creek move their courses every once in a while so that over thousands of years, every part of the delta gets its share of dirt.

Today, Sausal Creek officially meets the Bay in this culvert next to the Fruitvale Bridge . . .

. . . with this monumentation.

But it’s all totally artificial. This body of water is a large canal that was built in the late 1800s as part of the Oakland harbor improvements. Before that, Alameda was not the “Island City” but a town on a wooded peninsula called the Encinal, and the only way to get there on dry land was through here, across the delta of Sausal Creek.

The creek’s delta is unlike the deltas of Oakland’s other major streams. Here’s what I mean. Look at this map of central and east Oakland that shows only young material, whatever is not bedrock.


From USGS map OF 2006-1037

I’ve labeled Sausal Creek, shooting south-southwest straight to the Bay where the Alameda peninsula sits in its way. The dark purple stuff labeled “afem” is all landfill (“artificial fill over estuarine mud”), and the light yellow part marked “Qhf” is young river sediment (“[Quaternary Holocene] alluvial fan deposits”). The three pink blobs labeled “Qds” are areas of old Ice Age sand dunes: one under downtown Oakland, one making up the Encinal, and one under Bay Farm Island.

So before the canal was dug, Sausal Creek, unlike all other Oakland creeks, dumped its load here against a buttress of sand. The willow thickets that gave Sausal Creek its name must have thrived here. The early Anglo settlers were quick to put roads and rail lines through this area, and the brushy marshy creek delta would not stand in their way for long.

Which way did the creek run from here, to the right or the left? The only clues are a few old maps, not all of them trustworthy. The first official map of Alameda County, published in 1857, shows Sausal Creek, at top center, draining to the right into San Antonio Creek, the tidal inlet now known as the Oakland Estuary.

The Haynes map, published in 1878, shows it petering out and not even reaching the Bay. Other Oakland creeks, like Courtland and Upper Elmhurst and Seminary Creeks, were the same before they were diverted into pipes and ditches.

But every other map, of this vintage and later, shows Sausal Creek draining to the left into San Leandro Bay. I have no doubt that the road and railroad builders dug a ditch through the sand to control it (and conveniently mark the boundary between Alameda and Brooklyn Townships). The Thompson map of 1878 is a good example, followed by a map of the same area today. Sausal Creek is at top left.

Is it possible that the creek mouth shifted naturally from the right to the left during those years? Certainly; in fact the notorious winter of 1861-62, the wettest in our recorded history, could have done that by sending a big pulse of mud down the creek as it overspilled its banks. And the 1868 earthquake could have liquefied the ground here. The rarest events make the biggest difference. But in this case I would blame us.

The geologic map of Oakland shows the delta in more detail, outlining especially young wedges of sediment (Qhaf1) that were laid down by the creek in very recent geologic time, probably within the last few thousand years.

It’s even plausible that Peralta Creek, just a few blocks east, joined Sausal Creek off and on over the centuries and contributed to this delta. A prominent example is up in Richmond where Wildcat and San Pablo Creeks form a joint delta, at one point flowing just a stone’s throw from each other. But today Sausal Creek’s mouth is a truncated version of its true self, trapped in culverts for the foreseeable future, a dead delta.

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