How the California-wide drought is affecting Berkeley

Camphor trees line many streets in Berkeley, including Sonoma Avenue, here. Planted decades ago, many of the camphors are nearing the end of their natural life span, but the drought is dispatching them even more quickly. A camphor at the end of the right row here was removed this summer, as well as two more around the corner. Photo: Mary Flaherty
Camphor trees line many streets in Berkeley, including Sonoma Avenue, here. Planted decades ago, many of the camphors are nearing the end of their natural lifespan, but the drought is dispatching them even more quickly. A camphor at the end of the right row here was removed this summer, as well as two more around the corner. Photo: Mary Flaherty

The brown lawns are the least of it. The effects of the current California-wide drought go deeper than the roots of the grass and will continue several years after lawns turn green again.

Many of the impacts are very evident in Berkeley and the surrounding area. Trees are dying at a higher rate. The creeks are low and might be dry if it weren’t for leaky pipes. And if this winter brings heavy rains, damage to the stressed trees and creek banks could be significant.

One of the most obvious signs of the drought is the early fall color on many trees around town. Tony Wolcott, a master arborist, recently retired as Albany’s Urban Forester, said that the early leaf drop in the fall is a normal reaction to drought.

“It doesn’t mean the tree is dying,” Wolcott said. “It’s not a great thing, but it is a way of surviving,” he said.


But not all the trees will rebound. Wolcott said he’s noticed flowering cherries and flowering plums showing a lot of stress. So are the camphors, which line many streets in Berkeley.

“A lot of the camphors in town are old, but are dying more quickly because of the drought,” he said.  Even redwoods are looking stressed, dropping a lot of needles, he said.

One of several unhealthy Modesto Ash trees on Shattuck Avenue in the Gourmet Ghetto. The trees on the west side of the street near the Cheese Board have been trimmed of dead branches. Photo: Mary Flaherty
One of several unhealthy Modesto Ash trees on Shattuck Avenue in the Gourmet Ghetto. The trees on the west side of the street near the Cheese Board have been trimmed of dead branches. Photo: Mary Flaherty

Statewide, the U.S. Forest Service has preliminary reports of an estimated more than 20 million recently killed trees, mostly pines, in California. Trees are dying, in large part due to the drought, but often finished off by beetles. That’s far more dead trees than average.  The L.A. Times reported that the last time researchers saw large numbers of dying trees was in the drought of 1975-1979, when an estimated 14 million trees died.

Read more about the drought and its impact on Berkeley

Berkeley has about 35,000 street and median trees, said city spokesman Matthai Chakko. The city is watering only the young, newly planted trees on city property, and not those in front of private properties.


“But if people are concerned about their trees, they should water them,” Chakko said. “Drought restrictions are largely about grass; trees have a much greater value. Even EBMUD will recommend prioritizing what you water – trees.”

The Sacramento Street median has not been getting watered this year per state mandate. The grass died back, and the California buckeyes had dropped most of their leaves by September, which is a normal response to drought. The buckeyes, being natives, ought to recover, but other trees won’t. Photo: Mary Flaherty
The Sacramento Street median has not been getting watered this year per state mandate. The grass died back, and the California buckeyes had dropped most of their leaves by September, which is a normal response to drought. The buckeyes, being natives, ought to recover, but other trees won’t. Photo: Mary Flaherty

Creeks trickling

“Codornices Creek is very low compared to previous years and quite warm,” said Susan Schwartz, President of the Friends of Five Creeks. The non-profit volunteer group weeds, plants, and removes trash at creek sites from North Berkeley to Richmond.  The creek is warmer, Schwartz said, because it’s moving more slowly and gets heated by the sun.  That can be a problem because trout need cool water.

“So far, there are still living rainbow trout/steelheads in the creek,” she said. “These are tough fish. We have our fingers crossed that some will survive in shaded areas.”

Codornices Creek, shown here in Live Oak Park, is very low and might be dry if it weren't for East Bay MUD water that makes its way into the creek. Photo: Mary Flaherty
Codornices Creek, shown here in Live Oak Park, is very low and might be dry if it weren’t for EBMUD water that makes its way into the creek. Photo: Mary Flaherty

That there’s any water left in the creeks is partly, or maybe wholly, due to leaky pipes, sump pumps in basements, occasional water main breaks, and run-off from watering, said both Schwartz and Tim Pine, an environmental specialist, who monitors Strawberry Creek on UC Berkeley land.

“Strawberry Creek is not an entirely natural flow and hasn’t been for decades,” Pine said. “That’s true of many urban creeks.”  Pine monitors Strawberry Creek, from the top of the university’s land near Grizzly Peak Boulevard, through the university botanical garden and down to the foot of campus at Oxford Street where the creek goes into a culvert and enters city land.


Even with the influx of EBMUD water, Pine said the creek is the lowest he has seen it in his 15 years on the job. It’s down to less than 1 cubic foot per second he said.

The fish in Strawberry Creek — the three-spined stickleback, California Roach minnows and Sacramento suckers — are “hanging on, but I can’t say they’re thriving,” Pine said.

Both Pine and Schwartz said that recent restoration efforts — planting native vegetation along the creeks – have all been severely affected by the drought. Older, more established restoration projects have done better, Schwartz said.

Jewel Puddle in Tilden Park

Jewel Lake, shown in mid-September, used to come right up to the edge of the trees, with no "beach." The shrinking of the lake is due, however, less to the drought than to silting in. Photo: Mary Flaherty
Jewel Lake, shown in mid-September, used to come right up to the edge of the trees, with no “beach.” The shrinking of the lake is due, however, less to the drought than to silting in. Photo: Mary Flaherty

Jewel Lake, at the north end of Tilden Park where Wildcat Creek is dammed, has shrunk enormously. However, the drought is not the major culprit.

The majority of the problem has to do with silt, washing in from downstream, said James Wilson, a park naturalist.  The lake is 80-90% silted in from its original size and the park district is considering a large-scale engineering project to preserve it, he said.

The exposed edges of the lake have caught a few unsuspecting hikers this summer. Wilson said people have gotten stuck in the mud —  and while it might sound funny (stuck in the mud during a drought?), Wilson said it can be scary.

The uncovered shoreline of Jewel Lake in Tilden Park was a dangerous mud this summer, catching several hikers. One parks employee said wild animals seeking water have gotten trapped and died in mud at lakes in the district. Photo: Mary Flaherty
The uncovered shoreline of Jewel Lake in Tilden Park was a dangerous mud this summer, catching several hikers. One parks employee said wild animals seeking water have gotten trapped and died in mud at lakes in the district. Photo: Mary Flaherty

Lake Anza closed

Also, in Tilden, the larger, nearby Lake Anza closed for swimming in mid-September due to a toxic algae, reported on Berkeleyside.  According to the park district, the algae blooms in lower water levels and warmer water temperatures.

The lake is now closed for the season (and swimming is still considered unsafe). Dogs should be kept out of the water as well. The same type of algae appears to have killed dogs elsewhere in the Bay Area this year. Lake Temescal and other lakes in the park district also shut this summer due to toxic algae.

For more about the effects of drought on the East Bay Regional Parks see the district’s website.

Silver lining

The drought has brought a few benefits. Wolcott said arborists have been seeing less of several tree diseases that have been a problem in the area: anthracnose, powdery mildew and fire blight.

Also, the plant pathogen that causes Sudden Oak Death, has been reduced by the drought, according to the Forest Pathology Lab at UC Berkeley — although it will rebound with rain. Phytophthora ramorum has killed more than 3 million trees in California since it was discovered in the 1990s.

Another plus, Schwartz said, is that some of the invasive plants along the creeks bloomed late, giving the volunteers more time to control them. Troublesome plants like broom and fennel are also spreading less, she said, because they are being eaten (hence pruned) by deer and moths that usually don’t seem to like those plants. “I’m fairly sure it’s because whatever those deer normally eat is not available,” she said.

High School students helped the Friends of Five Creeks remove invasive fennel from the mouth of Schoolhouse Creek in Berkeley in August. Photo: Friends of Five Creeks.
High School students helped the Friends of Five Creeks remove invasive fennel from the mouth of Schoolhouse Creek in Berkeley in August. Photo: Friends of Five Creeks.

What winter will bring

“Historically, when a drought ends, we will see erosion and falling trees and blocked creeks for three to five years,” Schwartz said.

Many trees have lost a lot of their small roots. “Some will die, some will slide and fall,” she said. Furthermore, hillsides have lost a lot of vegetation cover and root structure, and will be prone to sliding.

Barry Hecht, a consulting hydrologist and geologist with Balance Hydrologics in Berkeley, said that willows and bay trees growing along streams tend to self-prune and are strong candidates for falling over.

“Stream banks could simply collapse because they’ve lost the strength they usually have from active roots,” Hecht said. “We expect that the amount of sediment moving through the streams is going to be larger following the drought.”

Wolcott added that the drought has made trees very brittle. “When we start getting rain and winds, you’re going to see a lot of branch failures and tree failures. This winter we expect to see a lot of tree damage.”

Pine, at UC Berkeley, said the campus has an El Nino committee working to prevent problems this winter, pruning trees. Pine said he and his colleagues will be watching the culvert at Oxford Street carefully during storms.

What you can do

Bay laurel trees are more susceptible to falling than some trees. Photo: Mary Flaherty
Bay laurel trees are more susceptible to falling than some trees. Photo: Mary Flaherty

Skip a shower and save a tree! (How Berkeley can you be?) Water your trees now; a slow soaking with no run-off. Wolcott said young trees need about 10 gallons a week, while older trees need more. Water under the tree’s whole canopy, not at the trunk. A deep-watering tool, available at hardware stores, will deliver more water straight to the roots. But even a bucket of gray water from the shower will help.   Watering now will also help the soil hold rain later.

Inspect your trees for cracks in the trunk. If you find cracks, consult with an arborist.

Trim compromised branches that could hurt people or damage property if they fell.  But don’t be over-zealous; pruning adds stress to the tree and removing foliage reduces the amount of photosynthesizing the tree can do, hampering recovery.

Keep an eye on your trees this winter. If they start leaning, call an arborist.

If you see cracks like this in your trees, consult an arborist. This tree isn't expected to live. Photo: Mary Flaherty
If you see cracks like this in your trees, consult an arborist. This tree isn’t expected to live. Photo: Mary Flaherty

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