Friends of San Lorenzo Creek

P.O. Box 582
Hayward, California 94543

September 12, 2005

Alameda County Board of Supervisors
2112 Oak Street
Oakland 94612

Proposal for a Public Task Force on Creeks

Dear Supervisor,

In a letter to the board dated May 27 Friends of San Lorenzo Creek proposed the idea of a public task force on creeks and associated issues, and promised that we would follow up with a more detailed proposal. This letter provides the promised details.

The regulatory, administrative, and planning issues surrounding creeks in the county's unincorporated territory are complex and interrelated. Management of flooding, stormwater, and surface-water runoff from intensively developed land, the public benefits of the unique natural resources of the creeks, including the potential use of creeks as the spines for public recreation areas and trails, the protection of water quality, and the functonal relationship of natural water channels and engineered stormwater systems, are issues that cannot be treated in isolation.

Fortunately, earlier this year the City of Berkeley formed a citizens task force to explore revision of the city's creek-protection ordinance. In our opinion the Berkeley task force provides an excellent model that can be followed in outline. Although the circumstances that led to the formation of the Berkeley task force are somewhat different than those that have prompted our proposal, we believe that many of the operating details of Berkeley's task force are appropriate for a task force focused on watersheds in the county's unincorporated territory. In particular, the Berkeley task force has been marked by cooperation and collegiality, despite the fact that it comprises individuals from "creek friendly" and "property protection" camps.

The Berkeley Creeks Task Force

In 1989 the City of Berkeley established a "creeks ordinance" (BMC 17.08). In early 2004 the City produced a map using geographic informations systems (GIS) that overlays various data in an effort to identify the regulated creeks in the city. This was done to identify properties affected by the creeks ordinance and to assist in enforcement of the ordinance. The City notified about 2,500 property owners affected by the ordinance that the city council would hold a hearing September 28 to help determine how the creeks ordinance should be revised in light of critical issues concerning underground creeks, private culverts, and stormwater runoff.

After the hearing the council amended the ordinance to allow existing buildings over underground creeks to be rebuilt following a disaster. Two months later the council established a Creeks Task Force to address specific issues concerning the creeks ordinance. The reports and recommendations of the task force are submitted to the city planning commission, which forwards them to the city council.

The task force was first required to come up with a scope, work plan, and budget within two months. Once these were approved, the task force was given a year to attempt to arrive at recommended revision of the creeks ordinance.

The work of the task force and all city staff reports are documented on the city's website at .

Purpose and Scope of the County Task Force

In addressing creek and water issues it is essential that a public task force rather than an advisory committee to an agency-led effort be formed for three related reasons. First, the issues to be addressed are complex and controversial and rise above the particular scope of any one agency.

Second, the two agencies most concerned with creek issues public works and planning each have strong institutional incentives for narrowing the scope of public examination and debate on creek issues and generally have competing institutional interests in the outcome of different issues. It is important, therefore, that the issues not be framed by the agencies, since that approach would (1) put the agencies in a competitive mode for securing institutional advantages, (2) put the BOS in the customary position of having to support county agencies, and (3) leave the public in a position of reacting to agency proposals, without developing consensus.

Finally, consensus-building both among the general public and among county officials must be a principal objective of the task force. Consensus needs to be developed on a number of significant policy and administrative projects:

The objectives of a creek-protection ordinance and myriad associated issues, notably setbacks.

The relationship between natural drainage channels (existing creeks) and engineered stormwater systems.

The quality of the water in stream flow, surface runoff, and discharge to the bay.

The regulatory and administrative framework for implementing policy, including enforcement of planning and engineering regulations and guidelines, integration of land use planning and drainage engineering, and a watershed-based approach to stormwater management and land development.

Flood control.

Preservation and rehabilitation of existing natural streams.

Public access to creeks.

Nature and Composition of the Task Force

The task force should be created by the BOS and its recommendations submitted to the planning commission for forwarding to the board.

Since the task force would deal with the fundamental issue of how to protect creeks and the watershed while at the same time controlling flooding, the task force should include diverse points of view from among those with a specific interest in creeks, e.g., environmental organizations with a bona fide interest in the issues outlined above, one or more persons with some experience in local land use planning, someone representing the point of view of creekside property owners, someone appointed by EBRPD or HARD, someone appointed by the planning commission, a scholar, etc. The specific composition of the task force can be worked out by the work group created to design the task force.

The task force must be supported by planning and PWA staff; which could comment freely at task force meetings but would not be members of the task force itself. Consideration should be given to inviting representation of regional, state, or federal authorities. In addition, Friends of San Lorenzo Creek believes that the cities of Hayward and San Leandro must be involved in any San Lorenzo Creek watershed planning because the San Lorenzo Creek courses through those cities.

Specific Questions for Consideration

In considering policies, administrative practices, regulations, and standards concerning creeks and watersheds, the task force should resolve certain key questions:

What values should be protected?

What data do we need?

What type of creekside development should be regulated? (See existing ordinance.)

What are the purposes of creek setbacks? Is the existing ordinance adequate? Do we need setbacks at all?.

What is the relationship of flood control, watershed vitality, and creek ecology?

What is required in water channel maintenance? (Bank stability, sediment flow, regulation of engineered flow (culverts, drain pipes) into creeks are examples.) What is the physical condition of natural creeks and engineered channels? Does the county need an easement in all streambeds to be able to maintain creeks?

What does public access to creeks entail and what to what extent is access feasible or desirable? (Visibility of creeks, bicycle and hiking trails are specific issues.)

What are the goals of creek enhancement/rehabilitation/restoration? A set of guidelines on daylighting (converting an underground culvert to an exposed streambed) is a specific issue.

How do we look at stormwater runoff? Can we have natural creeks with recreational value and also optimal stormwater management? Can we have a watershed-based policy for managing runoff in contrast to the present parcel-by-parcel approach presented by new development?

Is a comprehensive ordinance on water channels and watersheds feasible? Are there parts of existing ordinances that are separate or not integrated that should be brought together?

Can we develop a regulatory/administrative framework that hold agency personnel accountable for protection of policy values without cumbersome public review? Do the objectives and mandates of different agencies allow for interaction of agencies on creek- related issues?

Getting Started

A temporary work group should be formed solely for the purpose of recommending to the BOS a foundation for the task force broad purposes, steps, and objectives but not setting the scope of work, defining issues. Central to our proposal for a public task force is that the task force be free to define the issues, a framework for ongoing discussion, and a timeline for resolution of issues, subject to the approval of the BOS.

The work group might include an aide for each supervisor, an equal number of citizens, a couple volunteer experts who not county employees, and one representative of PWA and the planning department. It is essential that members of the work group either understand or be willing to understand the seriousness and complexity of the issues to be addressed by the proposed task force and also be committed to problem-solving.

The work group's recommendations could be presented to the board's Transportation and Planning Committee, or informally to every supervisor, prior to formal consideration by the BOS.


The initial task of the task force should be to recommend to the BOS a general statement of the task force's work and outcomes, a time line, and a budget for staff support (PWA and planning department). The task force should recommend near-term and long-term priorities of the matters it proposes to address. This task might take three months.

Once the BOS approves a work plan, the task force would be given adequate time, as much as a year, to (1) identify data it needs and begin data gathering, and (2) identify specific questions and issues that it believes require resolution by the BOS. The recommendations on policy and practice submitted to the BOS should reflect genuine public consensus, not merely a compromise among members of the task force.

The statements of policy, ordinances, and practice guidelines that emerge from this process should provide a clear, workable, and effective framework that agencies can use in addressing creekside development and surface water management.


Meetings of the task force must of course be public, but should also be well publicized. Members of the task force should be expected to engage, individually, in public outreach to promote awareness of the issues before the task force and to test public opinion on those issues.

The task force should proceed by consensus-gathering rather than parliamentary rules. It should have a section on the county's website at which documents prepared for or by the TF are available.

Formation of a long-term task force to deal with broad, complex issues is an extraordinary step but one required by the magnitude of the issues. Creeks and surface water management are also not unique to one or another supervisoral district. We therefore look forward to a response from all supervisors on this proposal.


Howard Beckman

A California Public Benefit Nonprofit Corporation