By Dr. Elizabeth Dougherty

It can be a revelation to discover that wherever you are at any time, in any location – you’re located in a watershed. But what does that mean and why should we care?

Most of us think the term “watershed” as a description of how water moves through a drainage basin – geography plus hydrology. But, honestly, a watershed is much more than water’s voyage through space over time. It’s a lens through which to understand the web of interactions of living beings and earth processes that we call an ecosystem. International Rivers writes, “A watershed also includes all the humans, plants and animals who live in it, and all the things we have added to it such as buildings and roads. Everything we do affects our watershed – from washing clothes and growing food to mining, commercial farming, and building roads or dams. The reverse is also true: our watershed affects everything we do, by determining what kinds of plants we can grow, the number and kinds of animals that live there, and how many people and livestock can be sustainably supported by the land.”

Here’s a definition of neighborhoods that highlights that neighborhoods are co-created.  “Neighborhood is generally defined spatially as a specific geographic area and functionally as a set of social networks. Neighborhoods are typically generated by social interaction among people living near one another. In this sense they are local social units larger than households. (Schuck, Amie and Dennis Rosenbuam 2006 “Promoting Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods: What Research Tells Us about Intervention.” The Aspen Institute)

Basically, a watershed is a neighborhood created by geography and the interaction between inhabitants that directly and indirectly impact one another. This is why I refer to watersheds as waterhoods — watershed neighborhoods.Thinking of surrounding flora and fauna as neighbors gets me thinking about how my actions affect them and vice versa. That is the case whether I get along with my neighbors – like the racoons, opossums, spiders, skunks, native bees, wasps, flies and butterflies or some that are more challenging neighbors – like termites, argentine ants, rats, cockroaches). How well do I know them, their language, their customs, their needs, their breeding cycles?

Part of the issue here is that many developed and urbanized populations have come to think of nature and ecosystem as something outside of ourselves, a place from which to draw resources, as part of ecosystem “services” to homo sapiens. Industrialized, capitalized humans consider themselves largely apart from their ecosystems rather than a part of their ecosystems. We focus on individual “resources” as if we are living in a post-ecosystem-dependent world, and each part is not connected to the rest. We have forgotten that we ARE ecosystem in the same way that we ARE water. We ARE nature. We ARE mammals. We ARE animals.

It’s time for us to get back in sync with our neighborhoods and natural processes and behave like decent neighbors. We do that by getting to know our neighbors, the flora and fauna of our own waterhood.

Before COVD-19 sent us off into being physically-distanced and not gathering in groups, my main method of inspiring folks to get to know their waterhood neighbors was through Community/Citizen Science events called bioblitzes. During bioblitzes, people assemble at a location, like the Albany Bulb at the mouth of Codornices Creek, looking for any and all flora and fauna. This is like the cocktail party approach to meeting your neighbors – you just get the general idea of who they are and where they live.

Sometimes bioblitzes are focused on just one species or even one member of a species, getting to know more specifics about that set of neighbors. We observe flora and fauna, take photos and then upload these observations on a super cool app called iNaturalist. Over time, even with doing simple bioblitzes repeatedly, we are building a base of knowledge over time, and with a variety of observers. Because we are creating iNaturalist projects in each of the San Francisco East Bay watersheds, you get a real sense of that particular waterhood these collection projects on iNaturalist gather up any observations any person makes in that geographic area. Check out the list of SF East Bay waterhood projects on iNaturalist listed below.

List of SF East Bay Creek Watershed projects on iNaturalist

Wildcat Creek Waterhood

Codornices Creek Watershed

Strawberry Creek Watershed

Temescal Creek Watershed

Sausal Creek Watershed

Peralta Creek Watershed

 You might be thinking, but really? Is one waterhood within only a mile, or sometimes even blocks of one another, so different? Couldn’t getting to know one waterhood in the East Bay just be representative of any of the nearby waterhoods? Not so! Wholly H2O made Species Cheat Sheets for some of the East Bay watersheds that demonstrate that the “most observed species” in one watershed are often quite different than the top contenders in another. But why?

Each creek has such a unique history – it includes natural geologic processes, vast shifts in species and numbers of flora and fauna over time, human history that unsurprisingly has issues of social and environmental justice embedded along footstep of each mile. In some cases, these stories come tumbling out with ease, while others we are teasing out through dives into archival history and personal stories. Some creeks were dammed, some buried beginning just below their headwaters all to the bay while others remain mostly open to the sky. Some have regular sewage leaks, some have particularly strong “Friends of…” groups that have fostered a great deal of restoration and some have no very few active advocates. Some reservoirs were created through Chinese labor, the sections of most creeks current easily accessible are in the East Bay hills were wealthier white people moved into redlined neighborhoods that specifically excluded “Negroes, Chinese and Japanese” both from buying and renting.

In order to get into the depths of each waterhoods info, we seized the moment of the onset of COVID and sheltering-in-place, and launched into creating Walking Waterhoods, a project that is actually more of a process of weaving together stories specific to each East Bay waterhood. These stories draw from natural and human history starting with pre-history to pre-colonization through to the present.  We’re starting with four major waterhoods that are easily accessible in both Berkeley and Oakland: Sausal, Strawberry and Peralta. Beginning with Temescal Creek, the process is three-pronged (and so damn exciting).

  • Create a virtual, interactive Walking Tour that can be used virtually or in-person to walk the creek, with popups of stories and info about the waterhood all along the way. Divide the walking tour into one-mile walking segments for ease of access by a parent and child, two+ students, or when again possible, whole classes and groups of adults.

What is most exciting is tour content will be crowd-sourced – photos, written stories and later sound files can be added by anyone taking the walk. Strolling along and surprised by an owl? Upload your picture and story to the app to be included. Have a story to tell about a striking childhood experience near that tunnel? Great, submit the story and it could become a stop along the trail for everyone that takes the tour.

  • Produce 3-4 livestreams per creek at critical junctures, included in the Walking Tour.
    (watch 3 recent livestreams about Temescal Creek Waterhood, with a special on Point Molate.
  • Provide extensive resources per creek hosted on the Walking Waterhoods webpage.

Stay tuned for the Temescal Creek Watershed tour to go live on the app PocketSites mid-September.

What we know after just our initial work on Temescal Creek is that, WOW, with few exceptions such as Jeff Norman’s book Temescal Legacies and Malcolm Margolis’ The Ohlone Way, many readily available stories only expose the first inch of the deep and expansive interactions over time of these waterhoods. From Saber-toothed tigers walking across dry land before there was the San Francisco Bay, followed by an abundance of grizzlies and salmon, followed by devastation of the Ohlone inhabitants here when the Spanish first colonized leading eventually to extensive (and currently ongoing) habitat destruction by cutting watersheds into human neighborhoods covered with pavement and buildings and burying of creeks.

Most readily available stories of waterhoods are gathered and told by white people, but the embedded multi-racial stories are absolutely there to foregrounded. The content to local schools has to be the history of the kids, parents, teachers and other adults walking those waterhoods with us, and fortunately for us, Oakland for one is the second most diverse cities in the USA. So many stories.

Racism and gentrification have led to a lack of access to sections of original creeks for communities of color in the Bay Area. Decades of red-lining, segregation, use of immigrant labor, and violence have created a legacy of exclusion of people of color from our creek and watershed spaces. It is no coincidence that expensive homes for wealthier whites were expressly built in the uphill, daylighted sections of our creek systems, while the same creek runs completely culverted underground in the poorer, majority people-of-color flats of the East Bay.

The fullest knowledge of a given watershed is contained in the stories of the people who live in them. In our project, community members will be the driving force behind constructing these narratives. By documenting the living history of these watershed systems, our participants become co-creators of Walking Waterhood”. Hopefully, as you stand up to stretch and look out the window or over from your porch into the garden, forest, creek or Bay, your first thought is, I can’t wait to meet my neighbors.

Dr. Elizabeth Dougherty is determined to make innovative approaches to localizing water sustainability all the rage in California. Since receiving her PhD in Ethnography from the University of Pennsylvania in 2003, Elizabeth has delved into a wide range of work in energy efficiency, fair trade, permaculture, agroecology and water conservation and reuse. In 2008, seeing a need to centralize water conservation and reuse information, Elizabeth founded Wholly H2O


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