Archive for the ‘Oakland streams and water’ Category


20 July 2020

As I explore Oakland, I find out more about the city’s eight-decade struggle to find adequate water. When Oakland was founded in the early 1850s, wells dug anywhere that people settled, especially in the old downtown area, yielded plenty (as I noted a few weeks back). But within a decade, the laws had to be arranged so that water companies could set up shop. The law gave them the power of eminent domain — if they needed your property, they had the right to buy you out for a fair price. (Several “water companies” were founded as cover for real-estate sharks, hoping to flip their paper titles like the domain-name squatters of the 1990s.) That’s when Anthony Chabot sprang into action, founding the Contra Costa Water Company in 1866. He made his fortune with surface water: the reservoirs of Lake Temescal and Lake Chabot. This post is about some smaller companies that competed on the basis of groundwater, digging and pumping wells in the area around the Coliseum. The map below shows the major sites.

From Sands Figuers’ Groundwater study and water supply history of the East Bay Plain, Alameda and Contra Costa Counties, California, figure 20

“Captain” Robert R. Thompson was a prominent citizen of Alameda back when the city was still on a peninsula. Seeing opportunity in 1879, he founded the Artesian Water Company, bought out the existing Alameda Water Company, and started drilling highly productive wells on the 12-acre parcel where his home sat. Today the site is known as Lincoln Park, next to Thompson Avenue on High Street. It’s as pleasant a part of town as can be, but all trace of the High Street Wellfield is long gone.

Looking down Thompson Street from High Street

Thompson knew what he was doing as well as anyone did in those days. Well diggers found the best sources by the Bay shore, even out in the tidal marshes. The theory went that a wide “subterranean river bed” extended along the shore of San Leandro Bay from the south end of Alameda all the way around to San Leandro Creek. I have a better idea that I’ll expound below.

Alameda’s demand for water rose until it outstripped Artesian’s supply, and in 1887 the company acquired the Damon tract east of the Oakland city limits near the town of Fitchburg, just down the “subterranean river,” and struck enough water there that in 1888 the High Street field was shut down except for emergencies. By then Thompson had sold his company and left town. Five years later Artesian bought a much larger (and much more productive) parcel on the Bay side of Fitchburg, near the Damon Wellfield. In 1899 Artesian was acquired by the Contra Costa Water Company during the East Bay’s “water wars,” when most of the private water companies competed themselves into bankruptcy and consolidation. Contra Costa became the Peoples Water Company for a while, then the East Bay Water Company, and finally a public utility, the East Bay Municipal Utility District, took them all over in 1928 and imposed the rational, dependable system we have today.

The Fitchburg Wellfield was where the Coliseum sits today. There were 51 wells lined up here along the Southern Pacific (Amtrak) right of way and another line of 19 out in the tidal marsh.

This 1912 map shows the plumbing in the Fitchburg Wellfield. It produced a good million gallons a day of “pure, fresh water” for Alameda customers.

From Figuers, figure 21

The outer line of wells (at the bottom) was within the range of the tides, so the wells were guarded by levees. In February 1909 a storm overcame the levees and sewage from the Bay contaminated the wells, giving 8700 Alameda residents instant gastroenteritis. Nobody died, but some of the victims with severe nausea, stomach pain and diarrhea may have wished they had. After things were put to rights, the wellfield produced water steadily until 1930, when EBMUD shut it down and got entirely out of the groundwater business.

Farther over, at the intersection of Jones Avenue (98th Avenue) and the Western Pacific railroad right of way (under the BART line), the Union Water Company drilled dozens of wells starting in 1910. In fact they had seven wellfields in the area, five of which fed the pumping plant in the Elmhurst wellfield, between 89th and 92nd Avenues north of G Street. Others were in Stonehurst and in San Leandro’s Broadmoor area. Together they produced about 3 million gallons a day. The Union Water Company was sold in 1921 to the East Bay Water Company.

All the old wells are long gone now, but signs of the Contra Costa, Union, Peoples and East Bay water companies can still be seen in Oakland’s streets.

See them all at my Oakland Underfoot blog

So what of that subterranean river? It wasn’t nonsense, just naive. Groundwater lives in underground layers of sand and gravel that have enough pore space to let water accumulate and flow. These layers slope downward toward the Bay, which means that the lower you can tap them, the higher the water will rise in the well and the easier the work of pumping will be.

To my eye, each of these major wellfields is related to a separate creek. At High Street, the waters of Sausal Creek flow straight down to south Alameda, where the thick sands of the former peninsula soak it up.

At Fitchburg it’s the even larger flow of Arroyo Viejo.

And at Jones Avenue, it’s not clear where the water might come from until you look at the geologic map, which shows a former course of San Leandro Creek heading right toward it — the unit labeled Qhl, meaning levee deposits.

So you could call these “subterranean rivers” and not be too incorrect. See them all in one image here.

You might wonder, “If fresh water is abundant at the shoreline, could it go even farther offshore?” And yes indeed, groundwater can advance quite far past the shoreline, and in many places there are freshwater springs under the sea. No one notices them but fish and scientists, but they account for a significant fraction of the world water budget.

Acknowledgment: As it happens, Dennis Evanosky wrote a piece a few days ago about Alameda’s water supply that helped me with a few details.

Water towers

22 June 2020

Once upon a time nearly every property in the embryonic city of Oakland got all its water from a well. Ideally you’d have a nice-sized property and use your backyard well to maintain a tank on the top of a tower housing the wellhead. This water tower (minus the tank) on the Pardee estate, at 11th and Castro, is the only one I know of left within central Oakland’s original street grid.

The first set of streets in Oakland ran along either side of Broadway, from West Street on the west to Fallon Street on the east. (There was an East Street drawn east of Fallon, but the marsh there was never platted to my knowledge.) They were crossed by streets numbered First (now Embarcadero) to Fourteenth. All of that land and much more to the north and west was on the forested former dunefield underlain by the Merritt Sand.

Besides having level ground and virgin soil, this whole area had good supplies of hard but drinkable water just a few feet down beneath a layer of hardpan. If you were an ordinary person you could haul buckets of water from your well into the house and do your business with it, or put a pump in the kitchen, but if you were blessed with any wealth you could arrange indoor running water — just erect a tank, high enough to give you good and steady pressure, and a windmill to keep the tank pumped full. You could also signal your status with impressively lush landscaping.

Soon enough, people’s sewage and other noxious things leached into the soil, and by the 1880s downtown wells were typically cased off near the surface to keep out the cruft. By the 1890s the water table had dropped in the old parts of town, which kept drillers coming back to deepen the wells.

Outside the Merritt Sand, well water was much more iffy. It was not uncommon for a lucky landowner with an especially productive well to run a little private water company that served a few neighbors, maybe a block’s worth at best. Bigger water companies, like Anthony Chabot’s Contra Costa Water Company, either built dams to capture surface water or located the best aquifers they could find and built wellfields there to fill large tanks and reservoirs.

Still, the water delivered by Chabot and his competitors was terrible by our standards: muddy, smelly, full of germs and prone to shutdowns during droughts. The contamination caused occasional disease outbreaks. The water pressure was fitful, and companies kept going bankrupt. Industries hesitated to locate here. It really was a problem.

Oakland wasn’t assured of a reliable modern water supply until the 1930s, when East Bay MUD acquired Chabot’s company, the last one standing, and built a dam on the Mokelumne River in the Sierra Nevada to do the job right. So at the turn of the last century, a residential building, like the long-shuttered Moor Hotel at San Pablo and West, would rely on its own well as long as it could.

The Pardee family did the same. George Pardee, who did so much for Oakland’s water supply as mayor, governor and East Bay MUD’s first president, held out into the 1930s, longer than most. Holding out must have run in the family: two of Pardee’s daughters lived in the house, preserving all its contents, until the 1980s as the city grew around them. The estate, now the Pardee Home Museum, remains as a patch of the old in our motley downtown, water tower and all.

Nowadays we all drink from the Pardee Reservoir, behind the Pardee Dam in the hills between Lodi and Ione — unless there’s still a holdout somewhere.

Can anyone point me to other surviving water towers in Oakland? They don’t have to be operable.

Anomalies of Sausal Creek: The Delta

11 November 2019

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.

Anomalies of Sausal Creek: The Floodplain

28 October 2019

This is the third of four posts covering the Sausal Creek watershed from hill to Bay. It features the part of the creek between Dimond Canyon and Foothill Boulevard. The early Anglo landowners were quick to establish fruit orchards and berry patches there, giving rise to a settlement and district out east in Brooklyn Township they called Fruit Vale.

That was just the right name for this distinctive locality. Its alluvial land, flat, tractable and naturally well watered, was ideal for planting. I say “planting” rather than farming because within a few decades — the commercial lifespan of an orchard — the farms gave way to grand homes with lush landscaping. That’s the “Fruit” part. The “Vale” part refers, as the word has since the 14th century, to a wide, flat lowland between gentle hills with a stream in it. An 1888 pamphlet described it as “one vast garden,” its roadway “lined with elegant residences and villas surrounded by beautiful lawns and gardens. . . . The soil is easily cultivated and everything planted in it thrives.”

The creek itself is hard to see in this stretch today, where homes and overgrowth block the streambanks. It also runs a good 20 feet below the surrounding land, a typical East Bay arroyo with banks like cliffs. Except for a lovely little fenced-off area on Barry Place, distant glimpses are the closest you can get to the water.

By textbook standards, Sausal Creek has the most well-formed floodplain in Oakland. A floodplain forms wherever a stream runs out of downhill energy and has to drop the sediment it’s carrying. The elevation profile I made for Sausal Creek shows the floodplain portion.

This part of the stream is at grade, like the canyon above it and the delta below. It’s very stable. Neither fully erosive nor fully depositional, a stream in a floodplain has little it can do except rearrange the sediment.

Floodplain streams tend to turn snaky, meandering and migrating like the trickles you’ll see on a rainy windshield. They nip off bits of the bounding hillsides and gradually widen their corridor.

From Phil Stoffer’s geologycafe site

A floodplain is a place where sediment languishes during its slow journey to the delta. A lot of that sediment enters the floodplain from the hills on either side. Here are three different views across the floodplain showing its flat floor and abrupt edges. Fruitvale Avenue at E. 27th Street:

Farther upstream at MacArthur Boulevard:

And still higher at Coloma Street.

For real detail, I always look for a digital elevation model or DEM. The DEM of the upper end of the floodplain shows how flat its floor is and how fragile the west side of the valley is. It also shows how much the stream itself is meandering within the straight floodplain valley.

Unlike the rocky flanks of Dimond Canyon, the hills lining Sausal Creek’s floodplain consist of sediment, ancient gravel beds that I’ve named the Fan. Time to look at the geologic map of the floodplain section.

The material of the Fan, labeled Qpaf on the map (“Quaternary Pleistocene alluvial fan”), is unconsolidated sand and gravel that’s prone to landslides on steep slopes. That scoop out of the hillside just left of center in the DEM image is the notorious McKillop slide, in progress for more than a century. Much of the crumpled land there was smoothed over and preserved as William Wood Park, but the adjoining slope to the south, which failed in 2006, is still a mess.

Two things about this stretch of Sausal Creek strike me as odd. The first is how straight the stream valley is here. Streams tend to curve, so if you find a naturally straight one you look for what’s forcing it to be that way.

My tentative theory, which I alluded to at the end of the previous post, is that the Fan was tilted up, not built up, along with the Piedmont bedrock block thanks to tectonic interactions along the Hayward fault. (In other words, the Fan is not really an alluvial fan but an uplifted relic of an older coastal plain.) I suppose that the stream was incised in a straight line by large flood events early in its history, then widened into the floodplain we see today. It’s easy to imagine big pulses of floodwater coming out of Dimond Canyon like a firehose, most likely after a temporary lake above the canyon, dammed up by an earthquake landslide, gives way. Such floods would rush in a straight line to the sea and set the stage for the floodplain that evolved.

The other odd thing is how closely the stream hugs the west side of the valley. So does Peralta Creek, just east of Sausal Creek. I think this may not be an accident. Glen Echo Creek, on the other side of the Fan, hugs the east side of its valley. Perhaps there is some subtle warping of the crust across central Oakland.

Sausal Creek’s fruited plain may be just a vale, but it’s a vale with some intriguing features.