Archive for the ‘Oakland streams and water’ Category

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.


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.