Clean creek can't wash away garbage status

February 20, 2009 7:13:42 PM PST
Cities that are broke may have to spend millions of dollars to clean up garbage-filled creeks and streams around the bay. That list was put out by the Water Quality Control Board recently. Sausal Creek was once listed as a problem, but in reality it was already cleaned up.

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Along Sausal Creek in the Oakland hills, there is a difference between what you see and what you read. If you believe your eyes, this is a pristine, beautiful place. But if you listened to a recent vote by the San Francisco Bay Water Quality Control Board, you might reach a different conclusion. They have put Sausal Creek on a list of 24 places where pollution is so bad, that it violates the federal Clean Waters Act.

"Before this creek was restored, it was really a mess," said Richard Kauffman with Friends of Sausal Creek.

According to the water board, the problem with Sausal Creek is garbage, and supposedly lots of it. The last time anyone filed a report about garbage there was 2004. The creek has improved since then, and the water board knows it.

"We have to work with the data we have," said Will Bruhns, engineer with the Water Quality Control Board.

Wil Bruhns interprets that data and makes recommendations to the water board, which has concerns about trash flowing down creeks and causing pollution problems at locations all around the bay. He says Sausal Creek made that list because in 2004 it deserved to be there. The problem is that since then, no one has written a report to the contrary.

"We have repeated measurements that said there was a problem, and we don't have the same repeats to say that there's no problem," said Bruhns.

"The community who spent hundreds of thousands of hours at this creek over the last 12 years restoring it, deserve a better label than a garbaged creek," said Lesley Estes, Oakland watershed manager.

At Sausal Creek, volunteers rely upon grants for their clean-up funds. They are concerned that by landing on a federal garbage site list that money will dry up.

"I think it is difficult for a funding agency to justify spending money or sending us money for trout habitat when the creek is listed as trash-impaired," said Estes.

"The question of, are we somehow going to interfere with their grant, that's speculative," said Bruhns.

But for now, Sausal Creek remains an official garbage site -- a case of best intentions, inspired outcomes, and limitations of the written word.

Freedman: "If all these other areas cleaned up as well as Sausal creek, would that be a victory?"

Bruns: "Sure."

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