By Anne Bremer
We all live in a watershed. When it rains, water flows downward from hills and mountains, through forests and streets, to creeks, rivers, bays and oceans. But what happens when a watershed doesn’t function in the way it should?
This is the situation faced by residents in the Rollingwood neighborhood, which borders Rheem Creek just upstream of Contra Costa College. For over 20 years, this community has suffered from flooding related to creek overflows. The Rollingwood reach of Rheem Creek has long been neglected and is choked with invasive vegetation, leading to sediment build up, obstructed channels, and worsening flood conditions. Climate change is expected to increase flood frequency and unpredictability. In order to address the flooding issue, The Watershed Project partnered with the Coastal Conservancy, American Rivers, the City of Richmond, Restoration Design Group and Contra Costa College on a multiphased project to restore ecological function to the Rheem Creek watershed while reducing the risk of flooding to nearby residents. The Watershed Project’s role is community outreach and engagement, ensuring that community members are involved at every phase of the project through interviews, workdays, and design charrettes.
In July, we kicked off the project with a door-to-door neighborhood flood survey. Our team of staff, Green Collar Corps members, and high school interns visited over 120 homes in the neighborhood to let neighbors know about the project, ask about their experiences with the flooding, and invite them to get involved with the project by attending a community workday or providing their contact information to receive updates. We interviewed over 40 neighbors, who provided us with valuable descriptions of how often the flooding happens, which areas are most impacted, and which direction the stormwater flows.
It was clear right away that many neighbors’ quality of life is impacted by the flooding. For example, when Rollingwood residents Juan and Laila purchased their home last year, the flood history of the property was not disclosed, and the couple faced an unpleasant surprise during the rains this past winter. The flooding has prevented them from renting out their in-law unit as they’d originally hoped, caused them to take time off work to put out sandbags during rains, rendered their yard barren, and raised concerns about the safety of their children and pets around unsanitary floodwaters. They are also concerned about black mold and damage to the foundation of their house. Our Outreach Coordinator, Sara, conducted several interviews with residents: “We listened to stories from people that showed frustration, anger, disappointment…I heard flood stories from almost 20 years back. And honestly it is disheartening to believe that these neighbors have to be afraid of the rain.”
However, despite any frustrations about how long the flooding has gone unaddressed, neighbors were overwhelmingly supportive of the project, and glad to hear there is a coordinated effort to resolve the flooding issue. Laila told me, “We’re very excited and grateful that there is work being done as this has affected us and our neighborhood greatly, the whole time that we’ve lived here. Whatever support we can offer moving forward, we’re definitely open and willing to do so, so we can get this whole thing rectified as soon as possible.” Juan added that collaboration between neighbors will be key to the project’s success: “We’re ready to offer our support and we’re prepared to take actions on our side of things, but also not just fall into our own little cubicle, so to speak…but to rally the neighborhood, to get everyone together and try to figure out the best way.”
Our canvassing team came away from our conversations with neighbors feeling grateful that we could provide some hope for the future of the Rollingwood reach of Rheem Creek. Sara said, “I hope that with the information and conversations we had with residents they will feel encouraged to become stewards in their community. Overall, I believe we did bring more awareness to neighbors. Many signed up for potential workdays, and it was really great to see how [our team of] 7 people were able to give a little bit of hope to many residents.” The Watershed Project’s mission of caring for the whole watershed includes caring for the people who are part of the watershed. By collaborating with partner organizations, agencies, and community members, we are hopeful that our collective efforts will be successful in surmounting the challenges that the Rheem Creek watershed has faced for many years, increasing the community’s climate resilience, and providing a better quality of life for the people who live there.