Archive for the ‘Oakland streams and water’ Category

Glimpses of Glen Echo Creek

28 March 2022

This is an inventory of what’s left of Glen Echo Creek, a stream with an outsized significance in Oakland’s history of development and planning. I used to live in its watershed and retain a strong affection for it. The photos in this post document every bit that’s accessible to the public. But first here’s the watershed map, courtesy of the county flood control district.

I’ll focus on the main branch, labeled “Cemetery Creek” in its upper reach (the Rockridge Branch on its north side is worth its own post). You can see that close to 90 percent of the creek runs underground today in culverts. Cemetery Creek’s headwaters, in Piedmont’s Moraga Canyon, are buried under Blair Park; the creek trickles out below Coaches Field at the edge of Mountain View Cemetery’s property.

From there the water goes through the cemetery’s three little reservoirs. This vintage view over pool number two is from my post celebrating the cemetery as the Bay area’s best landscape.

Once past the cemetery, the stream is known by its developer-inspired name of Glen Echo Creek. The upper portion, shown in this closeup, has four small segments of living water.

The first two are in back yards, and I’ve never seen them. This is the third, a brief flash at the end of tiny Arroyouela Avenue.

The fourth segment is partly public and partly private. The entrance to the Glen Brook Terrace includes two bridges and a sewer line, one of dozens I’m sure.

Just downstream is the narrow preserve, two residential lots wide, named Glen Echo Park. Neighbors help maintain it. The part above Monte Vista Avenue has a bit of the old floodplain. That’s where the stream flowed before white people came in the late 1700s. The disturbances they made to the countryside led all the little streams to cut into their floodplains forming the steep-sided arroyos we know today.

The creek enters a tunnel and comes out a thousand feet away, under I-580. That’s in the lower portion of the map, shown here.

Starting with Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1860s, thought leaders had a vision of the city laced from the shore to the hills by arterial parklike streets along each of the streams. Charles Mulford Robinson, a leading figure in the City Beautiful movement, was all about using our stream valleys for elegant roads with exquisite views.

The planner Werner Hegemann cited that vision in 1915: “A little suggestion of Charles Mulford Robinson’s plans may be found in the charming piece of a drive following for a short distance Glen Echo Creek under the name of Richmond Boulevard; though this has been carelessly handled by crossing the creek in some places by crude solid fills instead of light bridges, the elegance of a drive along a creek bordered by live oaks in contrast to the baseness of the use of the stream as a storm sewer is very convincing.”

It’s hard to square that picture with today’s dark, overgrown Oak Glen Park.

The envisioned road would never serve serious traffic, and the creek is far from a natural stream. Its fortified banks are choked with English ivy, Himalaya blackberry, French broom and other invasives, with no cleansing floods to clear them.

From here the stream runs privately through front yards, then a concrete ditch behind the Grocery Outlet.

The mappers of the flood-control district missed a final exposure, next to 27th Street at the black dot on the map. This is the last place one can hear the water speak.

Still farther downstream, at the second dot on the map, a ghost of the old creek was exposed as construction began at 24th and Harrison. This is the path of a long-disused culvert, being cleaned out and buried last week.

A photo sent by a reader shows details from a few weeks ago.

Finally we have the wholly artificial channel leading to the creek’s mouth at Lake Merritt.

One of Oakland’s great civic failures was its inability to preserve the natural streams. It took seven generations to reach this state, and it will take seven times seven to undo even part of it. Until then, we can only perceive the moribund creek in the topography of its valley, an echo of the glen it left us.

Lake Merritt’s sister lake

20 December 2021

Fukuoka, Japan is one of Oakland’s sister cities; nothing amazing about that, we have lots of them. But Fukuoka has a special twin it shares with us — a lake converted from an arm of the sea. Fukuoka’s counterpart to our Lake Merritt is Ohori Park.


All photos Wikimedia commons

It’s got boat rentals, a bird island and a Japanese garden, just like we do. It’s in the middle of the old city, just like ours is. But it’s considerably older.

The lake was formerly an inlet at the mouth of the Hii River; then the daimyo Kurodo Nagamasa repurposed it in the early 1600s as part of the moat (ohori) around his brand-new castle, diverting the river and building new land across the inlet’s mouth. To all appearances it’s been a freshwater lake for a long time.

While Lake Merritt has a couple of nice pedestrian bridges in its outlet channel, Ohori Park has four of them crossing the lake from end to end that connect three little islands.

Where we have green, great blue and black-crowned night herons, Ohori Park has the Old World’s gray heron, Nycticorax cinerea.

Ohori Park also has an art museum and a Noh theater. It doesn’t have our free-form public spaces, or our ice-age history and monsters. It’s got a Twitter account, but Lake Merritt doesn’t, far as I can tell. We’re different cities, but our lakes are near-twins.

In Oakland, we’ve been altering our lake for the last 150 years. It started out quite different, as a shallow muddy slough with patches of marsh around it and a muddy shore. It’s been dredged and dammed and armored and built up. Today it’s a highly contrived place, an open-air aquarium.

If we felt like it, we could fill in the channel and make it a one-way floodgate. In not too many years, the lake would turn freshwater, as Dr. Merritt intended when he built his dam back in 1868.

We took this lake into our own hands a long time ago. I like it very much today, but we can change it any time we feel like.

Merritt Canyon

27 September 2021

Like all true Oaklanders, I keep coming back to Lake Merritt. In this visit, I’ll muse about the many times in the recent geologic past when there was no Lake Merritt here.

If we assume, as I do, that the uplifted block of bedrock making up most of Lake Merritt’s watershed is about 1 million years old, then this little arm of the Bay has a fairly deep ice age history. A million years rather neatly fits the period of Pleistocene time after the Mid-Pleistocene Transition, when for imperfectly understood reasons glacial cycles changed from roughly 40,000 years to 100,000 years in length.

Let us then stipulate that this part of town has gone through about ten full glacial cycles. Each time the world’s ice sheets and ice caps grew, the sea level fell by a hundred meters or so — three or four hundred feet! Here’s a recently published set of sea level data for the last nine cycles. Various lines of evidence agree, though never in exact detail, about the timing and magnitude of the changes. That’s what paleoclimate science looks like.


From Rachel Spratt & Lorraine Lisiecki, 2016, A Late Pleistocene sea level stack, Clim Past 12(4)

Each time the sea fell, all of San Francisco Bay slowly drained dry and the coastline withdrew out past the Farallon Islands. Every stream that could do so cut into the newly exposed ground, digging gulches, ravines and canyons into the young sediment where before they were prevented by the high sea level. That’s when Lake Merritt became temporarily Merritt Canyon, with Merritt Creek surging along its bottom.

Each time, Merritt Creek dug out all the gravel and mud that had filled the basin of Lake Merritt and shoved it straight out into the Bay, where the drainage ran south and then around the end of San Bruno Mountain into the Pacific. That’s right — the Golden Gate didn’t exist. Instead, the Bay area streams and the great Central Valley rivers drained through what’s called the Colma Gap.

Here’s an illustration from a publication I refer to often, Sandy Figuers’ “Groundwater study and water supply history of the East Bay Plain,” that shows the typical drainage pattern of those times.


Courtesy State Water Resources Control Board

It’s very interesting: the river ran east of the Potrero Hills in Richmond, east of Yerba Buena Island, and all the way down to around San Mateo. And Merritt Creek, right in the center of that map, pushed a big fan of alluvium — river gravel and sand — into the basin that rivaled the fans of the other major East Bay streams. It went right under Alameda. That’s because Alameda wasn’t there.

This configuration of the Bay lasted from about 630,000 years ago, when the great freshwater Lake Clyde that once filled the Central Valley broke through the hills and cut Carquinez Strait, until the last warm interglacial period about 125,000 years ago. The sea at that time rose even higher than it is today, and motion on the San Andreas fault closed the Colma Gap. That’s when another gap opened up farther north on the fault, which became the Golden Gate.

So when the next glacial age began, the whole drainage pattern of the Bay shifted dramatically. Also the winds: instead of blowing south through the Colma Gap, the ice age westerlies carried huge amounts of glacial sand through the Golden Gate and across San Francisco, across the dry grasslands of the Bay and onto the East Bay slopes. That’s when the big fields of sand dunes accumulated in San Francisco and in three places on this side of the Bay: in downtown Oakland, in Alameda and on Bay Farm Island.

The latest time that Merritt Canyon formed, Alameda sat in its way all of a sudden, and I think Merritt Creek must have drained west, down San Antonio Creek (today’s harbor estuary), not southward as shown on this figure from the same report.

Here’s part of a third figure from that report, showing the depth to bedrock in Oakland as determined in boreholes.

Merritt Canyon really stands out underground: over repeated ice-age cycles, as the Bay floor has gradually subsided, the earliest versions of the canyon now lie 600 feet below Lake Merritt.

There should be a record of successive incisions and fillings of the canyon preserved down there. It would take a concerted campaign of core drilling and seismic reflection profiling to map and characterize it, and if I were a billionaire like some people I won’t mention, I’d spend the money even though it would be a huge hassle to get the permits.

Upper Indian Gulch

26 October 2020

When I last featured Indian Gulch on this blog, it was about the easy part, mostly a stroll up Trestle Glen Road. It ended with this glimpse of the living Indian Gulch Creek, bounding down the rock slopes of the Piedmont crustal block on its way to culverted oblivion beneath the elegant Trestle Glen neighborhood.

Upper Indian Gulch lies within Piedmont and the west fringe of Montclair that looks down upon Piedmont. Nowhere is the creek up there accessible to passers-by; if you want to see it you have to buy a house whose lot includes it, or make friends with someone who owns such a house. You’ll have to imagine it running in the dark underneath the street, as it does along La Salle Avenue just above St. James Drive.

Here’s an overview of the upper creek from Google Maps terrain view. The creek has three branches; the west fork is the main branch. To be a stickler, that fork should properly be called Indian Gulch Creek and the other two are just tributaries. The old property line between the two middle Peralta ranchos ran up this valley, Vicente’s on the left and Antonio’s on the right. Later the same line separated the Oakland and Brooklyn Townships of Alameda County. Today neither the ranchos nor the townships are relevant any more, but the boundary influenced the pattern of land ownership a century ago as Oakland expanded its territory and developers shaped the outskirts.

A stroll here is a workout. Part of my Ramble 4, Uptown to Montclair, goes up the creek’s middle fork but the steepest part is pedestrian-unfriendly. Three years ago I featured an excursion into the valley of the east fork. That pretty much exhausts the possibilities in those two valleys. In the west branch, two dead-end roads will take you to the floor of the valley, though the creek is not accessible. Indian Gulch Road leads down from Glen Alpine Road, just above the word “West”:

And Calvert Court swoops from Blair Avenue down into the creek’s highest watershed, where Oakland’s most isolated properties lie.

Here and there, you can get a look at the bedrock under the watershed: sandstone and mudstone of the Franciscan Complex.

And it’s hard, on Piedmont’s winding streets, to grasp the contours of the land. This view across the middle fork at Hampton Park is about as good as it gets.

Really, the best experience of these headwaters is on the rim roads that encircle the watershed. They aren’t photogenic in ways that my camera have caught many times over the years, but the views glimpsed through the trees and past the homes have always pleased my eye.

Looking east-northeast up Hampton Road at Sea View is a good view of the high rim of the east branch, topped by Pershing Drive.

By all means visit Oakland’s best bedrock there.

And don’t miss Wood Drive, along the north rim, where this excellent outcrop of Franciscan metachert awaits.

Indian Gulch is a good candidate for a circumambulation.