Josh Sonnenfeld: After 143 years, Oakland’s Lake Merritt Reunites with the Bay

20 Sep

This guest blog post was written by Josh Sonnenfeld, Campaign Manager for Save the Bay. This post is cross-posted from Save the Bay’s blog, one of the handful of environmental blogs I read regularly. If you care about the Bay, you should be reading it too.

A gem at the heart of Oakland, Lake Merritt has been many things – the nation’s first wildlife refuge, beloved waterway, sewage-filled cesspool, and even the rumored home to a lake monster. There’s one thing that Lake Merritt has never been, however – and that’s a lake.

What we now call Lake Merritt has for most of the past ten thousand years been a tidal lagoon where the waters of several East Bay creeks met the brackish tides of the Bay. Ringed with mudflats and tidal marsh, this lagoon was home to an abundance of native wildlife, including hundreds of species of birds.

This changed dramatically in 1869 as Oakland Mayor Samuel Merritt dammed the channel connecting the lagoon to the Bay. Later becoming the 12th Street Bridge, the lagoon’s water was forced through narrow culverts on its way in and out of the Bay, significantly reducing circulation and largely disconnecting the waterway from the rest of our great estuary.

Over the next century, the lake was inundated by raw sewage and considerable amounts of pollutants. 62 storm drains were routed straight into the lake, bringing with them car oil and other toxins from the city’s streets. To this day, the majority of these storm drains remain unfiltered. All of this has resulted in poor water quality, low oxygen levels, algae blooms, and numerous massive fish kills. The Environmental Protection Agency declared the lake an “impaired water body” in 1999.

Residents’ Effort Leads to Historic Project to Improve the Lake

Spurred by a development proposal near the Lake’s 12th Street shoreline, a group of residents got together to chart out a different future for the Lake. Named the Coalition of Advocates for Lake Merritt, the group drew up a proposal to reduce the bridge from twelve lanes to six, increase the width of the channel, and increase public access and wildlife habitat.

Oakland elected officials supported the plan and with the overwhelming approval of a bond measure (Measure DD) in 2002, the plan was put into action. Since that time, the City of Oakland has rebuilt the 12th Street Bridge and is actively removing tide-blocking culverts and widening the channel that connects the lake to the Bay. Several acres of newly restored wetlands are being created along with a 4-acre park and numerous walking paths.

Once the project is completed, estimated by the City to be late this year, the amount of water currently going in and out of the lake with the tides will be doubled, significantly improving water quality and circulation. The new wetlands will filter toxins out of the water, provide habitat for young fish and birds, and offer a pleasant experience for the thousands of walkers, joggers and bikers that enjoy the lake every day.

While there is still considerable work left to be done to restore the health of Lake Merritt, this project can bring a renewed sense of hope and determination that this is just the beginning of an ecological transformation in the blue heart of the city.

For more information on the history and the transformation of Lake Merritt, read KQED Quest’s story, “Polishing Oakland’s Crown Jewel: Lake Merritt Reborn” and “Undoing the 1950s – The Death and Revival of Lake Merritt” by the Alameda Magazine. You can follow the daily progress in photos by visiting Erik Neiman’s 12th Street Project blog. Gene Anderson’s Our Oakland blog also shares with us some fascinating old pictures of the lake.

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