By Paula White
During most of the last century, urban creeks throughout the Bay Area suffered a lot of abuse. Many cities and counties found them to be nuisances that got in the way of orderly development. Creeks were hidden away underground in pipes and rerouted and channeled through large concrete trapezoidal channels. Strawberry Creek in Berkeley used to serve as the sewer for the UC Berkeley campus until the 1980s when the first experiments with urban creek restoration began. Today the science of creek restoration has advanced considerably but the majority of urban creeks continue to be plagued by illegal dumping, invasive vegetation, and in some cases flooding. Rheem Creek, which runs through the Rollingwood-Fairmede community in Richmond, exemplifies all of these problems, and flooding in particular has plagued residents along Greenwood Drive and Greenwood Court for nearly two decades.
Why is flooding along Rheem Creek such a big problem, and what can be done about it? Back in the 1950s, Richmond like many other cities experienced a post World War II housing boom. Architectural plans for the “College Highlands” subdivision a few hundred yards east of the present-day Contra Costa College campus show a detail of a drainage ditch, now known as Rheem Creek, that runs behind the homes on Moyers Road. Engineers recognized the need for a drainage channel, since the homes on Moyers Road are on a hill, while the homes on Greenwood Drive on the opposite (south) side of the creek are on a flat plain. At the time of construction and for several decades afterwards the design worked to convey stormwater through the community. But In the early 2000s, a large pulse of sediment from an upstream development filled in the creek. Sediment + invasive vegetation + trash resulted in regular flooding in the neighborhood, especially along Greenwood Drive, Greenwood Court, and Fordham Street.
After years of complaints from residents and many discussions about what to do, the City of Richmond and American Rivers received funding to both design and implement a solution.
In 2019 The Watershed Project interviewed creekside residents and documented where flooding occurred. Then an engineering firm called Restoration Design Group surveyed the creek to document the channel depth and using both sources of information came up with a plan to restore the creek. The plan includes regrading the creek to its original water conveyance capacity by removing accumulated sediment, removing invasive vegetation and other debris, and planting trees and other riparian plants along the banks to stabilize them and prevent erosion. Over time and with proper care, the creek will be transformed into a beautiful park-like space.
Construction crews from the engineering firm UST Services began restoring the creek this past October and were able to complete the portion of the project downstream of the Fordham St. bridge. Some vegetation removal was also completed upstream of the bridge, but the rest of the grading and sediment removal will be finished when the rainy season is over and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife issues a permit to allow the construction work to be finished. Once grading of the entire channel has been completed, The Watershed Project and Urban Tilth will plant trees and other riparian plants. If you would like to be involved in planting and maintenance events, please contact Ethan Rayner email@example.com. We will also be monitoring water quality and sediment. Please contact Satoko Mills firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to be involved in those events.
Last December, The Watershed Project hosted a tour of the restoration project. We provided simultaneous Spanish and English language interpretation and had a lively discussion with residents, many of whom have lived in the community for decades and have experienced regular flooding on their property. Many topics came up, including responsibility for maintenance of the creek, pros and cons of having plants along the creek, capturing storm drain trash before it gets to the creek, and more. The Watershed Project has answered some of these questions on a FAQ document that is available on our Rheem Creek project page. We also invited residents to join the Rheem Creek Advisory Group to come up with a long term strategy to ensure the success of the project. We are accepting applications from residents who live or own property next to or near the creek to be a part of this group through January 31, 2024. We will begin meeting next month. For more information, please contact Paula White, email@example.com.
- Wholly H2O. The December Digest. “Strawberry Creek’s Storied Past”. Boyle, Megan. 109: December 2023.