Sausal Creek Watershed: Land of redwoods and fog

By Paul Belz

I’ve done over 2,000 tours of Oakland by walking, bike, any non-motorized way you can imagine,” Grey Kolevzon told group of 50 enthusiastic hikers. “This is one of my favorite places.” Our band of explorers had hiked through groves of bay laurels, coast live oaks, and introduced Monterey pines; they now stood on Redwood Peak, which marks the highest spot of the Sausal Creek watershed at 1,679 feet. If a raindrop falls on one side of the peak it flows into Sausal Creek, and if it falls on the other side of the peak it flows into the Contra Costa County watershed.

Watershed diagram from the US EPA

Watershed diagram from the US EPA

Ecologists use the term watershed to describe a major water body such as a stream, its tributaries, and the surrounding land. Grey told the group that their explorations of parts of Sausal Creek would show how each watershed has a unique microclimate, along with a special group of plants and animals. “We spend our days wrapped in human language. A watershed is the language of the land,” he said.

Grey, who is an agro-ecology instructor at Laney and Merritt Community Colleges, also coordinates garden programs for Oakland Public Schools. He loves to teach through stories, and shared an article that described the Sausal Creek watershed as it existed for thousands of years. Salmon and trout leaped in the streams. Elderberry, blackberry, toyon shrubs, and many native grasses covered the hillsides and gave elk, deer, and antelope a good home.

Condors soared overhead in those days, while song sparrows sang “Sweet-sweet SWEET! I’m so sweet!” and California quails called “Chicago! Chicago!” Coyotes stalked hares and rabbits while peregrine falcons dove to catch band tailed pigeons. All animals, including California grizzlies and mountain lions, respected the shy, humble skunks. Grizzlies, elk, antelopes, and condors have vanished, but the other plants and animals still live in the watershed.

At the beginning of the 20th century, ten sawmills operated near today’s Redwood Regional Park- more people lived in lumber camps in the hills than in the bustling city of Oakland! Grey described photos taken in the early 1900s. They showed bare grasslands occupying the redwood’s turf. “One thing that people didn’t expect when the redwoods were logged was that the creeks would dry up the next year,” he said.

Standing in a 35 foot wide fairy ring. Photo: Constance Taylor

Standing in a 35 foot wide fairy ring. Photo: Constance Taylor

Today, the redwoods in the Oakland hills are second or third growth, meaning that they sprouted from stumps after the original trees were logged. We gathered in one of these “fairy rings”- it was 35 feet wide! The original parent trees in this grove were so tall and wide that sailors used them to guide their ships into the San Francisco Bay. The Ohlone, who thrived in this region for thousands of years, historically left redwood forests alone. Grey speculated that they understood how the trees contributed to the watershed’s health.

The group hiked down a slope to a spot where runoff and underground water form Sausal Creek’s headwaters. Young coast redwoods grow tall and thickly enough to gather summer’s fog and absorb its moisture, creating a cool, moist microclimate. “Welcome to California’s temperate rainforest,” Grey said. “It can be 100 degrees in the flatlands and still cool here.” Much of the water vapor the redwoods collect adds to the flow in Sausal Creek.

Redwoods can live for 2,000 years, and have shallow root systems that can cause them to topple in strong wind storms. However, redwoods also link their roots together underground to support each other, which provides added support against the wind as well as allowing them to share water and nutrients.

East Bay Regional Parks, Friends of Sausal Creek, Friends of Joaquin Miller, and other organizations now protect the Sausal Creek watershed and its young redwoods. Grey asked the group to spend a minute in silence, thanking the redwoods for their services to the watershed. “I grew up exploring these parks with my friends. I wouldn’t have survived without them,” he said. ”My mother says I cried for the first six weeks of my life, but I stopped when she took me to Muir Woods. I have a feeling it was because of the redwoods.”

Grey remarked that today’s children and adults aren’t spending much time exploring places like these, but to keep these areas protected people need to experience and understand these ecosystems. When people just turn on a tap instead of collecting water out of a creek, natural bodies of water start to seem like inconveniences that cause floods or property damage instead of life-supporting necessities. “Maybe this is why streams have been culverted or made to flow through tunnels. Restoring these streams is a way to remember what our water is, how it gets to us, and what a watershed is.”

Restoration area- sedges and aquatic plants in foreground, redwood and oak groves in background. Photo: Constance Taylor

Restoration area- sedges and aquatic plants in foreground, redwood and oak groves in background. Photo: Constance Taylor

The hike ended with a visit to a watershed restoration project. Boards on the hillsides slow water’s downhill flow, allowing it to deposit silt. This sediment encourages the growth of native plants. The area appeared dry when we saw it, but underground water supports cat tails at the center of a circular area. Native sedges surround these aquatic plants, which were engulfed by coyote bush and native blackberries. Three different environments- redwood forest, oak forest, and chaparral, all overlap at this special place.

Thanks for coming to the Park,” Grey said as the explorers got ready to return to their cars. “These places will be preserved because of our visits and attention.”

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