Berkeley has several water drainage systems, called watersheds, that carry water from the hills to the bay. These systems begin as small tributaries or springs that merge to form larger streambeds as they make their way to the bay. Some systems are fed by year-round springs, while others are seasonal and only run during the rainy season. The pre-settlement, natural drainage systems were originally above ground but are now mostly hidden from view in underground pipes and culverts.
Today there are four creeks that actually empty (through culverts) into the bay within the city limits, but there are 10 drainage systems that originate in the Berkeley hills with six of them emptying into the bay in Emeryville, Oakland, Albany or El Cerrito.
Early in the settlement of Berkeley springs in the hills were tapped as sources of a useful water supply, with pipes diverting the water into reservoirs. An 1875 map shows a complicated system of pipes and walled-up springs to bring water to the new university campus. Whenever feasible, developers culverted stream and creek beds to facilitate the grading of roads and laying out home sites.
Given the undulating hilly terrain that contains many gorges, it is surprising how hidden these creek systems have become. Codornices Creek, which is located in north Berkeley but empties into the bay in Albany, is Berkeley's most visible creek system. The creek originates in the upper hillside in a number of tributaries that have remained open, natural streams and runs through Codornices and Live Oak parks.
Perhaps the largest creek system is Strawberry Creek, which is a visible and important landscape feature of the central campus. The presence of this year-round stream was one of the reasons why the campus location was selected in 1860 by the College of California. Most of Strawberry Creek, however, is now located underground. A small section in Strawberry Creek Park, near Addison and Acton streets, was day-lighted in the 1980s.
The natural movement of water from the hills to the bay continues even though the stream beds are mostly out of sight. The complicated underground system is not entirely mapped, and it sometimes fails. Failures include not only flooding, leakage and erosion, but also contamination with sewage and other toxins.
The Urban Creeks Council of California (510-540-6669) was formed in 1982 to address concerns about the health of watershed systems because they directly influence the water quality of San Francisco Bay. In the East Bay the council has advocated the day-lighting of creeks where feasible, ridding creek systems of contaminates and returning spawning fish to some of the creeks.
Susan Dinkelspiel Cerny is the author of the book “Berkeley Landmarks” and writes this column in conjunction with the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.