Reflections from Alameda Creek Alliance
By Ralph Boniello, Alameda Creek Alliance
A community partner spotlight highlighting content written by a key local partner from each Design Team. Local partners were asked to respond to a set of questions about their experience working with Teams and Resilient by Design.
Is the area where your organization works currently facing regular challenges related to flood risk?
The Alameda Creek Alliance is a non-profit organization focused on conservation and restoration of the native fish of the Alameda Creek watershed. Alameda Creek is the third largest tributary to San Francisco Bay, after the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. The Alameda Creek watershed encompasses more than 680 square miles of the East Bay, from the highly urbanized areas of Fremont, Hayward and Union City to the rapidly developing areas of Pleasanton, Livermore, and Dublin.
Migratory fish such as steelhead trout, Coho salmon and Chinook salmon once swam upstream to spawn in cold-water graveled reaches of Alameda Creek and its tributaries. But construction of dams and reservoirs in the upper watershed and flood control projects that have channelized the creek block the ability of fish to migrate as they historically did. These large engineering projects have successfully accomplished their important goals of flood control and water delivery. But they also trap the flow of sediment in the system, which we are only now beginning to recognize the long-term impacts of. Sediment is a liability when it accumulates behind dams and in flood control channels. It increases flood risk by reducing the amount of floodwater that a reservoir can hold or a channel can carry and becomes an expensive maintenance problem for our public water and flood control agencies.
However, sediment is also a valuable asset that’s needed to replenish the marshes ringing San Francisco Bay and help them aggrade (build up) as sea levels rise. These marshes protect coastal infrastructure from the impacts of wave action, including the levees that protect our communities near the edge of the Bay. The lack of new sediment being carried by rivers like Alameda Creek means that this infrastructure will be more susceptible to erosion and failure as sea levels rise, with the potential for costly economic losses.
What is missing in that area in terms of reducing flood risk and reducing the negative effects from sea level rise?
Many past solutions aimed at reducing flood risk have focused on artificial solutions to the risks of flooding. These artificial, often engineering-focused solutions differ from natural systems in that they are often single-purpose, static, and have a specific design life. Natural systems, in contrast, provide multiple benefits, are able to adapt to changing conditions, and have the ability to strengthen rather than weaken over time. We’re excited to see more planning using natural systems as “green infrastructure” to reduce flood risk and the impacts of sea level rise.
Restoration of South Bay Salt Ponds to tidally-influenced marsh presents an important opportunity to re-connect Alameda Creek to the marshes where it outlets into the Bay. Such a connection would begin to restore the processes necessary to make the marshes resilient to rising seas by restoring sediment flows into them. In addition to protecting our communities, it would provide benefits of restoring habitat and wildlife connectivity, which is especially important for juvenile salmonids beginning their journey to the salt water environs of the Bay and the ocean.
Beneficial reuse of sediment will be an important topic across the Bay Area this century. Many of our reservoirs and flood control channels have become choked with sediment that reduces their capacity to ameliorate flood risk. At the same time, a lack of sediment in wetlands at the Bay’s edge is decreasing their ability to compensate for rising seas. Moving sediment from where it’s a liability to where it’s an asset comes with a complex set of challenges that we’re just beginning to consider. Solutions to these challenges will require innovations that may be outside the mission or regulatory scope of individual agencies and therefore unlikely to be considered without coordinated planning.
Do you think the Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge has helped this area move toward a more climate resilient future?
The Resilient by Design | Bay Area Challenge has helped the Alameda Creek watershed move towards a more climate resilient future by bringing together stakeholders and advancing the important conversation of resiliency planning. While this isn’t the first time that stakeholders and technical experts have come together to discuss restoration in the watershed, the design perspective that the Public Sediment team has brought helped to isolate problems and find innovative solutions for what are sometimes not wholly technical impediments towards resiliency planning. They’ve advanced the discussion of a low-flow channel in the Alameda Creek Flood Control Channel in Fremont that would benefit the movement of sediment and migratory fish. They’ve advanced the discussion around re-connecting the creek to the marshes at the edge of the Bay. They’ve created resources that have helped to facilitate a public conversation about sediment and outreach about the importance of resiliency planning to the broader community.
Do you have concerns about how the Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge might affect this area?
The Resilient by Design | Bay Area Challenge has already helped to advance a conversation of resiliency planning in the Alameda Creek watershed. Our concerns revolve more around the question of what happens to the conversation once the challenge is over. We hope to see continued investment in coordination of the multi-agency effort required to further advance the designs that are underway.
Do you have thoughts on how designers and technical experts can work to help increase our region’s climate resilience while ensuring new investments in resilient infrastructure do not reduce ecological benefits? How should broad climate resilience efforts like Resilient by Design advocate for ecological resilience?
Before this design challenge began, we were skeptical as to what designers could bring to the table that technical experts in the area hadn’t already considered. What we had failed to consider is how designers can help technical experts communicate problems, facilitate discussions, and guide solutions. It is vitally important that regional conversations continue around climate resilience, and there is great value in having designers participate in that discussion. Broadly, climate resilience efforts should advocate for the expanded use of natural systems and green infrastructure, which are inherently more resilient than our artificial structures. Designers can play an important role in helping technical experts work through the many challenges they face as we move towards these new types of infrastructure investments.