Glen Echo Creek

B efore the arrival of Spanish explorers in the late 1700s, the East Bay was a rich plain built up over many centuries as sediment was washed out of the mountains by dozens of creeks. The creeks were the lifeblood of the land, providing year-round water and cool shade to plants and animals alike. Native Americans harvested acorns, berries and basket materials from the oak groves and willow thickets, hunted the abundant game on the grassy plains and fished when steelhead ran up the streams to spawn.

B y the mid-1800's the Spanish ranchos had brought cattle and other livestock that pulled out the more nutritious native bunchgrasses and spread the seeds of exotic annual grasses everywhere in their droppings. The cattle congregated along the creeks, trampling banks, destroying streamside vegetation and releasing silt that would damage the habitat for fish eggs and other stream organisms.

A fter the Gold Rush, the growing city of Oakland displaced its earlier cemeteries and Mountain View Cemetery was chartered in 1863, giving Glen Echo its other name of Cemetery Creek. Frederick Law Olmsted, the renowned landscape designer of the cemetery, also recommended that the city create a greenbelt of parks and leave 100 foot riparian buffers along creeks, anticipating by 100 years some ideas of modern restoration ecologists. In 1876 the cemetery became the end of a new streetcar line that attracted commercial enterprises and homes to Webster Street, as Piedmont Avenue was then called. view map

T he late 1800's saw some farms give way to houses and more streets were laid out even though the watershed was still relatively rural. The increased paved or "impervious" area of streets and buildings prevented rainwater from soaking into the ground and moving gradually towards the creek, instead causing it to flow rapidly over the ground surface. The volume and speed of streamflow during storms increased so that the creek began cutting its bed deeper into the ground and undermining the base of its banks.

D evelopment in the watershed accelerated in the years after the 1906 earthquake, when many of the homes in the PANIL area were built. Developers wanted to sell as many lots as possible that were close to the streetcar lines, and they built pipes or culverts to enclose the creek underground so that more houses could be built on top. The culverts sped up the creek flow even more, causing more downcutting and erosion in the remaining open stretches of creek. This threatened houses that had been built too close to the creek, so more creek sections were enclosed. The cemetery, with its relative lack of paving and the storage capacity of its ponds, limited the amount of flooding and erosion downstream and probably helped save the few portions of Glen Echo Creek that escaped culverting. However, these "islands" of creek habitat could not function in the same way as a healthy stream with an intact watershed. The native fish and most of the aquatic insects they depended on vanished, and the surviving birds and land animals declined without a continuous corridor of riparian vegetation for safe travel between the tiny remnant patches of habitat.

V oters approved the formation of the Alameda County Flood Control and Water Conservation District after severe storms flooded downtown Oakland and other East Bay cities in 1962. After reviewing conditions along "Zone 12 Line B", as it calls Glen Echo Creek, the District purchased several lots between Montell Street, Monte Vista and Glen Avenues where ill-situated development conflicted with the creek channel. After intensive discussions among city, county and local residents, the District agreed to leave the creek uncovered after removing the houses, and to let the City manage part of the area as a neighborhood park.

G len Echo Park was officially dedicated on April 16, 1978. Although community meetings had already developed proposals for the park design, the slow pace of government response and then the aftermath of the Loma Prieta earthquake delayed improvements to the site. The neglected park area attracted trash and noisy parties, becoming more of a nuisance than an amenity. In the meantime, a grassroots movement for restoration of urban streams had arisen in the Bay Area. PANIL's creek activism was rekindled in 1985 when Flood Control "maintenance" activities damaged the Glen Avenue section of creek upstream of the park. Finally, the City of Oakland's new program for creek improvement worked with PANIL to install the native plant garden on the north side of Monte Vista Avenue in 1998. In December 2000, PANIL received a Partners in Preservation Award from the Oakland Heritage Alliance for its role in preserving the creek and enhancing the park.

C ity staff and the Flood Control District are collaborating with neighborhood groups to improve and restore creeks in other parts of Oakland. Oak Glen Park on lower Glen Echo Creek is a focus of one of these projects and also hosts regular community cleanup activities. Meanwhile, PANIL and the community are working to incorporate more environmental sensitivity into new projects proposed by the Flood Control District at Glen Echo Park.

Selected Sources:
  • Beth Bagwell, Oakland, the Story of a City. Oakland Heritage Alliance 1992
  • Christopher M. Richards, ed., Guide to East Bay Creeks and Creek & Watershed Map of Oakland & Berkeley, Oakland Museum 1995
  • Alameda County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, Cultural Resources Evaluation 1985