Lake Merritt has been called the "jewel of Oakland," its 155 acres make up the nation's oldest wildlife refuge, created by the state legislature in 1870. But, Lake Merritt was not always a lake; it was originally a tidal slough.
"It's always been here, it was broader than it is now, it had a ring of marsh and mudflats around it, at low tide, it was connected to the bay through a relatively wide channel," project manager Joel Peter said.
That channel was once blocks wide; today much of it has been filled in and a series of narrow culverts restrict the amount of water that flows in and out of the lake.
But thanks to community advocates, voters and environmental groups it is now getting attention. Construction work is underway on the first of three segments that will widen the channel to link the lake to the San Francisco Bay. A 12-lane highway built in 1950 on the western side of the lake is the first to go.
"We are taking out the restrictive culverts and replacing them with a clear spanning bridge that will span over a 100-foot wide channel," Peter said.
Replacing it will be a new six lane tree-lined boulevard with taller bridges that will allow cars, bikes and people to cross. Some wetlands will be restored and bay water will filter into the lake with the changing tides, more than doubling the tidal flow that goes in and out of Lake Merritt
The $35 million project is being funded by the California Coastal Conservancy, the federal government and local taxpayers- by Measure DD passed in 2002. Another $12 million will be spent to clear culverts at 10th Street. Work on that project could start by the end of the year.
"At the worst the lake was almost dead," California Coastal Conservancy spokesperson Sam Schuchat said. "You don't have to change it much to make a big difference."
Schuchat says the lake has struggled to survive for decades. A lack of oxygen made it difficult for life to flourish. In fact, fountains were put in to help aerate the lake because the summer months frequently turned it into a giant pool of stagnant water.
"There will be much greater tidal exchange between the lake and the bay and the water quality will improve, there will be more oxygen in the water, there will be more fish, there will be more plants, it won't smell as bad in the summer, it should actually smell pretty good," Schuchat said.
The project is expected to wrap up in 2015. When it is completed, visitors will be able to canoe or kayak from the Oakland estuary to Lake Merritt unimpeded.
Written and produced by Ken Miguel