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Is Cerrito Creek One of the Dirtiest in the Bay Area?


On a recent Saturday afternoon in El Cerrito, a small army of East Bay volunteers gathered at the end of Adams Road to reflect on their handiwork.

Two hours earlier, an ugly chain link fence marred the edge of Cerrito Creek. Now it was bundled neatly on the ground, much of the blackberry underbrush had been cleared, and the sun sparkled on the clear water.

It’s hard to believe that this is the same creek that recently topped Save the Bay’s annual Bay Area Trash Hot Spot list, released in September.

Save the Bay, an environmental non-profit and policy advocate based out of San Francisco, has compiled data on creeks and waterways in the Bay Area. This year, Save the Bay collaborated with the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, a governmental organization, to create their list.

While all 23 of the waterways on the list are considered “trash impaired,” there has been some confusion about what this list really means.

The waterways were not listed in a particular order of “trashiness,” said Amy Alton, a spokesperson for Save the Bay.

“We make a very concerted effort to not say top, or top 10 – we just say 23 trash hotspots,” she said.

“I think a lot of people think these are the only 23 hotspots in the Bay Area – that’s not true. It’s likely that there are many more waterways that are just as trashy. They just don’t have the data on them,” said Alton.

“I don’t think there is any way to compare them in terms of ‘worst,’” said Richard Looker, a water resources control engineer with the water board – the source of the information for Save the Bay’s highly-publicized list this year.

Looker said that his organization had been collecting trash data since 2001, but the specific data gathered from Cerrito Creek was from March and July 2004. The data was based on in-person trash assessments.

Wil Bruhns, the chief of planning with the water board, elaborated on how the creeks were analyzed.

“You measure off stretches of creek and count pieces of trash – then you remove them, and come back two weeks later and see how much has come back,” Bruhns said. The two most important things are “how much is there, and how fast it comes in and out,” Bruhns said.

“We don’t get all of them – it’s a matter of resources,” he said. “No, we have not hit every creek in the Bay Area.”

Susan Schwartz, president of Friends of Five Creeks, the all-volunteer group dedicated to creek restoration in the East Bay, was supervising the Saturday volunteer effort at Cerrito Creek.

“What we’ve found in many places is, if you make the place attractive and cared for, litter largely stops,” she said. “This is a continuation of a project that’s been going on for seven years to make Cerrito Creek attractive both to wildlife and humans, flood-safe, and, to some degree, to restore native plants.”

She listed a recent Girl Scout mural, steps built by a local Boy Scout troop, invasive plant clearing done by volunteers and other recent efforts as examples of community efforts.

Cerrito Creek, which stretches from the Berkeley Hills to the San Francisco Bay, runs close to the El Cerrito Plaza shopping center, which accounts for at least some of the trash pollution that placed this specific waterway on Save the Bay’s list.

When asked about Save the Bay’s recent list, Schwartz said that the creek did have a trash problem. She named the creek’s proximity to El Cerrito Plaza, three pipes delivering refuse from storm drains, and general littering as culprits.

However, she added, “This is unquestionably not one of the dirtiest creeks in the bay. It’s a lot more complicated than that.”

The purpose of making a “Trash Hot Spot” list and publicizing it was to raise awareness about the issue of polluting creeks, said Alton.

“Each year we release this list right before Coastal Clean Up Day,” she said. “We hope that people will see this and come out and help with the trash clean up.”

If you are interested in volunteering to help restore local creeks, here are some upcoming events:

Friends of Baxter Creek is organizing a restoration tour and work party on December 13, 9:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. Contact Ocean Halbert for more information:

Help Friends of Five Creeks plant native plants on newly restored parts of Cerrito Creek from 10 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 22.

Also, for walkers age 50 and up, explore restoration sites on El Cerrito’s Baxter Creek, from 9 a.m. – 11 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 4.

Contact Susan Schwartz at or call 510-848-9358 for more information.

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