Sausal Creek- Oakland’s riparian sanctuary

By Constance Taylor

If you’re in need of a breather from the daily crush of Oakland urban living but only have an hour or two to spare, Sausal Creek is the cure for what ails you.

Located less than four miles away from downtown Oakland, this area has been lovingly and steadfastly restored by the Friends of Sausal Creek (FOSC) since 1996- seventeen years later, anyone can reap the benefits of their hard work by taking a walk on the creekside trails shaded by bay laurel, oak, and buckeye.  You might still hear a decibel or two of traffic, but the transition from busy urban environment to green riparian corridor is nothing short of amazing.

Mark Rauzon, founding member of FOSC and geography instructor at Laney College, led us around the area on September 14, 2013 and recounted some of the history of the area as well as detailing stories of the sweat, tears, and triumphs that FOSC has endured to transform the creek from an industrial dumping ground to ecological sanctuary.

Adobe bricks from the Perlata homestead. Photo: Constance Taylor

We started the walk next to the old boy scout building in Dimond park, now a utility shed, partially constructed of 200-year-old adobe bricks from original Peralta homestead.  Lest you think I’m misspelling “Dimond”, the park and the Dimond district are named after Hugh Dimond, a gold rush transplant who eventually made his fortune as a liquor wholesaler became a real-estate magnate that built much of the upper Oakland area.

The watershed that feeds Sausal Creek begins primarily in Joaquin Miller Park and in the hills above Shepard Canyon Park, and exits into the tidal canal between the Fruitvale bridge and Alameda island- between these points, the creek flows through both daylighted and culverted area.

Map of Sausal Creek from Oakland Museum of California: Guide to East Bay Creeks.

Walking down the riparian path, we heard a screech from the trees.  “Sounds like a red-shouldered hawk” said Mark, who still had his binoculars around his neck from that mornings FOSC monthly bird count.  “They like to nest in riparian corridors.”  FOSC conducts routine monitoring of species in the area- plants, birds, and aquatic insects are all observed to document both natives and invasives maintaining or gaining footholds in the area.

Passing underneath the native tree canopy with horsetail ferns brushing our ankles and hawk calls echoing in our ears, it was hard to imagine Sausal Creek as it was less than twenty years ago.  “There were piles of broken concrete, hot water heaters, and abandoned cars dumped in the creek bed… you name it.  It was really unsavory- this wasn’t considered a safe area.  There was nothing but blackberry, ivy, and the smell of sewage,” said Mark, waving a hand toward laurels drooping over the burbling creek while we breathed bay-scented air.

In the 1990’s the city decided to repair the leaky sewer lines in the area, which ran beneath the creek bottom and required tearing up large portions of the land to access the pipes.  “Laying the new line meant they would have to rip up the creek bottom,” said Mark.

“People who lived in the area got together and thought, ‘Let’s make it a demonstration of what it might have been like originally’.  The city paid for $200,000 of sewer construction and removal of invasive plants like Algerian ivy, acacia, and eucalyptus, then FOSC took over and started restoration.

Right after they lay the new line, the area reminded me of a burn patient- the banks were covered in fabric to prevent erosion, and everything was torn up except some of the larger oaks.  Then we started working- poking holes through the netting and planting things.”

FOSC planted willows, red alders, redwoods, horsetail, and other species native to the watershed.  In all, over 50,000 native plants were set down during this initial renovation phase.

Sausal Creek during sewage line construction. Photo: Mark Rauzon


Sausal Creek after restoration. Photo: Mark Rauzon

Since the new sewer lines were installed, the creek has water more often than it doesn’t.  “Because the sewer lines were fractured, water flowing downstream would run into the cracked pipes, get funneled in with the sewage, and leave the creek bed dry,” said Mark.  “Since the installation of the new lines, there’s water here year-round.”

Educational sign posted at Sausal Creek.


This has led to the comeback of species such as the native rainbow trout, common in many other parts of the world.  Rainbow trout have been introduced into every continent except Antartica, but areas like Sausal Creek that lead to Pacific estuaries are where they hail from.   “Now that there’s water in the creek year round as well as enough aquatic insects to support the trout, we’re starting to see more of them in this area,” Mark explained.


Mark explains the trash rack. Photo: Dianne Fristrom


As we continued up the trail, we came to a rusty trash rack spanning the creek.  In the 1920’s, trolley tracks had been torn out from areas within the city and the asphalt, cement, and iron tracks had been dumped in the creek bed.  When the WPA projects started, the trolley tracks were reconstructed into trash racks to prevent large debris from traveling down the creek.  Sixty years later, when FOSC started their work restoring the area, they removed four of the five trash racks to improve the flow of water.  “We ran out of money before we could remove this last one” said Mark as he reached down and wiggled one of the posts.

Entrance to the road. Photo: Constance Taylor

Diverting from the creek and heading west, we walked up a trail that led us to Old Canon road.  This road was built in the 1860s to transport logged redwood trees from the Hayward fault and higher elevations to build San Francisco and Oakland.  “Any redwoods you see south of the Hayward fault have been planted by people,” said Mark.

An interesting change to the ecology of the area is due in part to the invasive Algerian and Cape ivy.  “You’ll notice that the tree canopy is becoming more buckeye than oak,” said Mark as we strolled under the sprawling branches.  “There aren’t any baby oaks because acorns can’t grow high enough to get past the ivy cover on the ground.  But buckeye seeds have enough food stored in them to grow taller than the ivy, which is why they’re becoming the dominant tree in the area.”

One of our last stops was alongside a storm drainpipe, jutting like a broken bone from the steep embankment.  These are pipes that funnel rainwater and urban runoff directly into the creek.  This in itself isn’t unusual, but problems arise given the placement of the pipes- located dozens of feet above the creek bed, the gushing water causes severe erosion.  Looking down at it, the chasms the runoff has cut into the hillside is alarming.

Storm drain erosion. Photo: Constance Taylor


“FOSC applied for a state grant to fix some of the storm drains so the runoff could be managed.  We got $540,000 dollars… when the grant was approved, I though, ‘Oh no- what have we gotten ourselves into?!’  I mean, we’re just volunteer citizens taking on a major earth moving project.  But no one else was going to do it, so what other option did we have?”

Work to remedy the erosion caused by these storm drains should begin in 2014. 

Sausal Creek is without a doubt a human-impacted environment, but there’s an interesting lesson to be learned- if given space to regenerate, with human allies preventing more damage being done, wilderness can start creeping back into our landscapes.  It may not ever be the same as it once was, but it might remind us of what it means to be part of something larger than ourselves.

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