EBMUD Draft Watershed Master Plan: 2016 revisions (Oakland)

The East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) held a bustling public meeting at its downtown Oakland district offices on August 15, 2016. I attended along with at least 16 others associated with EBCNPS advocacy topics. More than 100 people attended and approximately 57 people spoke. The predominant topic was that of incorporation of language in the Watershed Master Plan (WMP) to allow mountain bikes on single-track trails, where they are currently banned. More than two thirds of the meeting speakers were vehemently opposed to allowing mountain bikes on single track trails. The Bay Area Ridge Trail mountain bike group provided maps to EBMUD as a suggestion for opening more trails. In response, EBMUD is considering a two- year trial period process allowing bikes on about 10 miles of trails, in four areas throughout the watershed at Pinole, Eagle’s Nest, Skyline to Fish Ranch Road, and Redwood. I spoke my three minutes outlining our organization’s opposition to mountain bikes on single-track trails. In our comment letter, we are taking the opportunity to analyze the plan as a whole including suggestions for new language and declaring support for existing biodiversity objectives.

We oppose allowing a two-year trial period for mountain bikes on these trails. Not all of these proposed trail openings are single track. But we suspect that a two-year period would lead to an entitlement attitude later. We support instead a one-year trial period. We oppose allowing mountain bikes on single track trails, period. Concerns vary from fire danger and hiker safety to vegetation decimation and erosion. One particular stretch of proposed trail opening along Skyline to Fish Ranch Road is beautifully dense with native and rare plants. Glen Schneider, our lead volunteer for this area, has nicknamed it Skyline Gardens and advocates for its categorization as a botanical preserve. Our Conservation Committee supported this language in a motion at our last meeting, August 23, 2016. Glen and his thistle-catcher compatriots have documented 233 native plant species on this EBMUD land parcel, 170 of which occur immediately next to the single track hiking trail over a span of less than two miles. Unfortunately mountain bikes are illegally riding at Skyline. A population of Trillium has disappeared due to this abuse. It is foreseeable that the trailside native plant populations would continue to decline if trails uses were expanded to include mountain bikes here.

Other public agencies and CNPS chapters have struggled with the principles behind new allowances for mountain bikes. Mountain bikes are non-motorized, two-wheel bikes built for off-highway travel. Single track paths typically support hikers and equestrians, compared to double track paths, or fire trails, which are wider and can support more varied recreation use. In all trail system arrangements, our organization remains concerned with illegal trail cutting and impacts such as the spread of invasive weeds and erosion. Our organization has allied with two local chapters of Sierra Club and the Audubon Society to strengthen our joint message.

EBMUD’s first priority is water quality preservation. Recreation activity management has a lower priority. Although they incorporate guidelines for trail use in their master plans and recognize the ever-increasing demand for recreation in the Bay Area, some of the 28000 acres of land and water under their ownership and management may never be open to the public, regardless of high interest. We applaud this conservation stringency. Many of us are naturalists who enjoy a beautiful hike but we recognize that some land should be preserved for its intrinsic biodiversity and watershed value.

The original Watershed Master Plan (WMP) came out in 1996, and this public process has been ongoing since August 2015 for their 2016 draft WMP, which will probably be finalized later this year. The purpose of a master plan is to develop general guiding principles and vision for the agency over a 20-30 year period. This comment period closes September 2, 2016.
Mountain View Cemetery EIR (Oakland)

In early August 2016 our organization submitted comments on the draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for a Mountain View Cemetery proposed expansion project. The cemetery is proposing acquiring permits from the City to remove more than 190 mature coast live oak trees (Quercus agrifolia) as part of a plan to add future grave sites. More than 100 of these oaks have a diameter at breast height (DBH) greater than 12 inches. Our organization objected to removing these trees, which provide genetically local oak stock and rich habitat for more than 40 species of migratory song birds, even considering the largely degraded status of the overall habitat (now mostly a landscaped lawn or invasive weeds). On an environmental documentation level, several reports and data representations in the EIR were too confusing to allow the public to make an informed decision. Our lead volunteer for this project, Judy Schwartz, Conservation Committee member and pallid manzanita advocate, uncovered many conflicting details throughout the EIR.

In our organization’s strongly worded letter we requested an alternative landscape plan that incorporates existing live oak trees into the proposed design, particularly retaining large swaths/groves of trees and individuals with permanent protection measures. We also requested that this revised grading and landscape plan clearly show where existing oaks will be retained. As the plan stands all these oaks may be removed. They comprise most of the healthy oaks in the entire cemetery. We recommended that an independent biological monitor be present on site during grading to insure the protection of the oaks, including generous margins of protection around root zones and careful grading to insure ongoing lawn irrigation does not over water established oak tree root zones.

Last minute outreach efforts revealed that this project tugs at the heartstrings of people around the east Bay Area. More than 100 people and organizations copied my email address conservation@ebcnps.org when submitting their comments to the City of Oakland! All of our impact together surely resounded in the inboxes of the council members and city planner. I was touched to read heartfelt emails from people who have family buried at Mountain View Cemetery, from those who enjoy the place as a recreational park refuge, from birders and other environmental advocates, from doctors and California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) professionals. It was obvious: we all love Oakland and specifically this peaceful parcel of land.

In the upcoming three to six months before we expect the next EIR distribution, members from our Conservation Committee will continue to reach out to local media and council members, in order to build support for substantially revising this proposed project. All those who submitted comments should receive notice of the next public distribution and comment period regarding this proposed project EIR.

Karen Whitestone
East Bay Chapter Conservation Analyst