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Watershed History


Below are excerpts from:

“A Cultural and Natural History of the San Pablo Creek Watershed”

by Lisa Owens-Viani.

The San Pablo Creek watershed is a wealthy one-rich in history, culture, and natural resources. The early native American inhabitants of the watershed drank from this deep and powerful creek and caught the steelhead that swam in its waters. They ate the tubers and roots of the plants that grew in the fertile soils deposited by the creek, and buried their artifacts, the shells and bones of the creatures they ate, and even their own dead along its banks. Later, European settlers grew fruit, grain, and vegetables in the same rich soils and watered cattle in the creek. Even today, residents of the San Pablo Creek watershed rely on the creek, perhaps unknowingly: its waters quench the thirst and meet the household needs of about 10 percent of the East Bay Municipal Utility District's customers. Some residents rely on the creek in another way, though-as a reminder that something wild and self-sufficient flows through their midst, offering respite from the surrounding urbanized landscape. Wildlife, too, rely on the creek, nesting and foraging along its banks and using its riparian corridor to move throughout the watershed. And just as they have done for centuries, steelhead swim up the creek-even through urban San Pablo-until they reach San Pablo Dam.

Just a few hundred years ago, the San Pablo Creek area was a very different place. Moist grasslands and meadows covered much of what is now Richmond and San Pablo. Seeps and springs flowed year-round, providing habitat for Pacific chorus frogs, red-legged frogs, California newts, and other amphibians, which preyed upon the bright dragonflies that hovered nearby. Vernal pools, with their concentric rings of wildflowers, appeared and disappeared, according to the season. Colorful butterflies like the California sister and painted lady visited those wildflowers and sipped their nectar, in turn helping the plants disperse pollen. Everywhere there was movement and sound: the buzzing of insects, the rustling of snakes in the grasses, dry leaves cracking and dropping from the oaks, the buds of ceanothus popping, and the raucous calls of flickers and scrub jays as they flew from tree to tree. Coast live oaks dotted the landscape, supporting entire ecosystems within their canopies. Oak titmice, bushtits, and other native insectivorous birds foraged on insects in the oaks, while jays, woodpeckers, gray squirrels, and mule deer pilfered the acorns. The thickest tree growth was along the creeks, their banks lined with alders, box elders, sycamores, buckeyes, and big-leaf maples. San Pablo Creek was the largest, deepest creek. It coursed across the landscape, its flows swift and strong, unaltered by dams or other impediments.

The first human residents of the area were discovered by Spanish explorers Pedro Fages and Juan Crespi in 1772.

The people the Spanish found here were Ohlone Indians, most likely of the Huchiun clan, a group that lived throughout the East Bay flatlands, roughly between Pinole and Oakland. They drank from San Pablo Creek, using its waters to leach tannins from the acorns of coast live oaks, which they ground into a nourishing gruel, and stalked the plentiful salmon that spawned in the creek's gravels. While the Huchiuns probably dammed the creek temporarily to catch their fish, they did not permanently alter the creek's flows or prevent fish from swimming and spawning upstream. Their overall impact on the stream was negligible. Huchiuns living closer to the Bay caught mussels, California oysters, seabirds like cormorants and grebes, and sea otters, seals, and sea lions. Occasionally, they would feast on a whale that had washed ashore. They traded the diverse foods they found in the estuary for the goods of other clans who lived farther inland.

Where the creek transitions from fresh to saltwater marsh as it enters the Bay, the Huchiuns caught songbirds and shorebirds in carefully hidden nets. They harvested tules, cattails, willows, and sedges, which they used for weaving over 15 different types of baskets, boats to fish in, and even huts to live in. Beneath the cordgrass, saltgrass, and pickleweed of the salt marsh, they found bent-nosed clams and snails and within the tidal channels caught sturgeon, bat rays, thresher sharks, and leopard sharks. They may have also fished for white sea bass and porpoise in deeper waters. In addition to these sources of protein, the Huchiuns ate the seeds of California buttercup, blue wild rye, creeping wild rye, farewell-to-spring (clarkia), and chia, an upright blue flower with grayish leaves. The small, flat, brown seeds of chia are tasty and nutritious and are used even today by Native Americans to treat diabetes. The greens of wild clover, lupine, miner's lettuce, columbine, and spindleroot were eaten raw or steamed. Soap root flourished in the fields near the creek, and the women would dig up its bulbs with sharp sticks and roast them over hot coals. Many of these plants still grow in parts of the watershed, often hidden among introduced grasses and weeds. And hidden beneath the apartments, homes, churches, and parking lots along the creek throughout the city of San Pablo is another tie to the past: the numerous shellmounds of the people who once lived and thrived here.

Sometime between 1813 and 1817, the Spanish priests who had established San Francisco's Mission Dolores founded an outstation in San Pablo, where they grazed sheep and grew crops. …. In 1823, after Mexico took possession of California from Spain, the Mexican government formally awarded the Huchiun land to Francisco Castro for his service in the Mexican army, and the Mission Dolores priests surrendered the land to him.

"Rancho San Pablo," as Castro named his land, was 90 square kilometers, from Cerrito Creek in El Cerrito to the south, to Pinole Creek to the north, and east to the present-day towns of El Sobrante and Lafayette.

[Castro used the land for cattle grazing, and although many immigrants moved onto the area in the later part of the 19th century, San Pablo and El Sobrante retained a rural character.]

The ranchers, farmers, and their visitors also hunted and fished along San Pablo Creek. California quail were so abundant that thousands could be seen at a time…Residents claimed they could carry a pitchfork into the creek and catch salmon weighing 20 pounds or more.

In the late 1800s, the California and Nevada Railroad, a wood-burning narrow-gauge railroad, ran … alongside the creek parallel to what is now San Pablo Dam Road.

(The details of transition from ranchos to farms and towns are presented in the booklet)

During its brief heyday, the California and Nevada Railroad brought urban residents from Oakland and Berkeley into the El Sobrante Valley and Orinda area to go swimming and picnicking along San Pablo Creek. Roundtrip fare was 60 cents. After turning eastward at St. Joseph's Cemetery, the railroad followed alongside the creek, first paralleling the south bank, then crossing the creek on a 100-foot-long, 40-foot-high trestle near what is now the northwest edge of San Pablo Dam. After that crossing, it followed the north bank of the creek. Almost every half mile, the train would rattle across a bridge above one of the creek's many tributaries.

Although plans called for the California and Nevada line to extend to Utah, it never made it past Orinda. There was no turntable at the terminus, so the locomotives had to run the trains backwards from Orinda to Emeryville. Known as "the Grasshopper" for its frequent derailments, the train sometimes stopped moving altogether when grain that had been scattered on the tracks (after harvest of the surrounding fields) made it difficult to gain traction. Often the train was delayed by cows crossing the tracks. Sparks flying from the locomotive's stack set hay fields on fire, and the train would screech to a halt so that male passengers could help put out the fires.

Other than the railroad, the area was accessible only by the one-lane, horse-and-buggy dirt road that ran alongside the creek-San Pablo Creek Road, which later became San Pablo Creek Highway and still later San Pablo Dam Road.

After the dam was built, San Pablo Creek Road was moved to higher ground, along the old railroad bed, and its name was changed to San Pablo Dam Road.

The dam probably affected the creek's flows more than any other factor, but urbanization has had a great impact on the creek as well. In the 1940s the World War II shipyards came to Richmond, and housing was needed for wartime workers. Between 1940 and 1945, San Pablo's population increased more than tenfold-from just 2,000 residents in 1940 to 25,000 in 1945. The large sugar beet field (where the El Portal Shopping Center now stands) was converted to housing, as were many other farms and fields.

After World War II, hundreds of shipyard workers from Richmond and San Pablo moved to the El Sobrante area, and the commercial strip along San Pablo Dam Road began to develop.

Today San Pablo Dam Road has over 100 businesses, from cafes and restaurants to medical and law offices, bookstores, print shops, gas stations, dry cleaners, and even the office of an organic food network. Many of these businesses back onto the creek, although its steep banks prevent easy access down to the water.

While El Sobrante retained its semi-rural character, San Pablo lost most of its open space, with the exception of the corridors along the creeks.

While the dam has unquestionably altered the creek's hydrology and habitat, the reservoir has created a new type of ecosystem. Fish-eating birds like bald eagles and great blue herons roost in the surrounding eucalyptus trees, while the reservoir itself attracts many different species of ducks and geese. But perhaps the greatest benefit from the dam is that much of the land around it is protected from development, because it is owned by the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which manages the watershed as open space in order to protect water quality in the reservoir

Grizzlies and elk no longer drink from the waters of San Pablo Creek, but the creek nonetheless retains its wildness. Mixed in with the non-native eucalyptus trees are enormous native bays and buckeyes that tower above the creek, some of their trunks 20 feet in diameter (one especially large old bay tree can be seen in San Pablo on Road 20, near 18th Street). Native willows, white alders, box elders, cottonwoods, and coast live oaks line the banks too, interspersed with the non-native palms that thrive in San Pablo's balmy climate. If the creek has a signature tree, it is the California sycamore, with its huge leaves, some as large as one square foot. You can see these amazing trees-and the creek-at St. Joseph's Cemetery (stand on the bridge at Fordham Drive, and look up- and downstream) and from the parking lot of the MacArthur Community Baptist Church (on Rumrill Boulevard between Brookside Drive and Road 20). Sycamores also grow along the creek just off of Giant Highway near Parr Boulevard, which is considered unusual because they are not often found this close to the coast.

Even in today's much-altered watershed, San Pablo Creek provides a haven for native wildlife that rely on riparian habitat, including many species of concern, like Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks, yellow warblers and the rare yellow-breasted chats (riparian songbirds), and-in the uppermost watershed-the threatened Alameda whipsnake and endangered red-legged frog. Unique and uncommon plants, such as the western leatherwood with its pale yellow flowers, the Diablo sunflower, bent-flowered fiddleneck, El Sobrante manzanita, Santa Cruz tarplant, and Brewer's western flax, grow near the creek and its tributaries in the upper watershed. Black oaks, their sweet acorns favored by the Native Americans, and valley oaks, some close to 100 feet tall and with roots that can grow 30 feet deep to reach water, also grow in the upper watershed. Each of these oaks can have over 300 species of birds-and 5,000 species of insects-living on, in, or around it.

In more urbanized areas, trash is often tossed down the creek's banks, and feral cats, raccoons, and opossums are probably the most commonly seen mammals. Yet if you stand very still on the creek's banks even within parts of San Pablo, you may spy a tall white bird walking slowly through the water-a great egret stalking fish. If you hear a loud chatter, look for the blue flash of a belted kingfisher, arguing with another kingfisher over nesting territory along the banks. Look high in the eucalyptus trees, where red-shouldered hawks patiently watch for rodents. And everywhere along the creek, you'll find black phoebes flirting with the water surface, diving and dipping for mayflies and small fish.

Despite centuries of land disputes and lawsuits over flows, and in spite of the dam in its middle, occasional riprap along its banks, and even the large-scale paving and urbanization of its watershed, San Pablo Creek has continued to find its way from the hills to the Bay. Unlike smaller streams, which were more easily treated as nuisances and quickly put underground in pipes, this creek is a small river-too big, too steep, and too powerful to be treated so casually. The creek's steep ravine may have also ensured that most buildings and roads were built at the top of its banks, far from the active channel. But with new developments being proposed for the remaining open hills in El Sobrante, and an ever-increasing number of people living in the watershed, the creek will not only need to be kept accessible in places so that people can better enjoy and appreciate it, but it will also need to be protected. Protecting the creek could mean helping to restore habitat along its banks, helping to reduce pollutants that run off into its waters-whether from garbage, cars, or the cleaners and pesticides commonly used around homes-or by acting as advocates on the creek's behalf, to ensure that it always flows freely.

“A Cultural and Natural History of the San Pablo Creek Watershed” by Lisa Owens-Viani is available from Aquatic Outreach Institute.