Mother and daughter Julie and Sora Freedman sit on a log that, when Jewel Lake’s water level is high, is often occupied by turtles. The pair have been coming to Jewel Lake on and off since Sora was a toddler. Oct. 20, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos
Mother and daughter Julie and Sora Freedman sit on a log that, when Jewel Lake’s water level is high, is often occupied by turtles. The pair have been coming to Jewel Lake on and off since Sora was a toddler. Oct. 20, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

On Sept. 19, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Joshua Kayman went to Jewel Lake in Tilden Park with family and friends to perform Tashlich, a Jewish New Year’s tradition. The ritual requires a running body of water, preferably one where fish live.

“We came to cast away our sins into a body of water,” he said. “We came here to do this at this body of water, because we need a big living body of water.”

Kayman, who had never been to Jewel Lake, said he had assumed from the name of the lake, and from the fact that it is fed by Wildcat Creek, that it would be suitable for the ritual. He said he was surprised by what he found instead: an isolated muddy puddle teeming with frogs, and so narrow his young children were able to jump from bank to bank across the middle.

“We’re going to make do because it’s 2020, and you just roll with it in 2020,” Kayman said.

Kayman had made the same discovery that many who frequent Tilden Park have made over the past couple of months: Jewel Lake, once a mid-sized pond populated by egrets, ducks, kingfishers, herons, western pond turtles, California newts, river otters, bass, sunfish and perch, among others, has shrunk down to near-nothing.

The lake is particularly small and low right now for a few reasons, said Matt Graul, the East Bay Regional Park District’s chief of stewardship. Wildcat Creek runs dry in the rainless months of summer and early fall, but has been hit harder than ever since the Bay Area received less rainfall than typical last winter. Once the rains start and fill the creek, there should be water again in the lake, he said.

But the other reason is the lake really is smaller. Sediment carried by Wildcat Creek into Jewel Lake is building up, and, as each year passes, it reduces the lake’s surface area. Wetland plants have moved into the new sediment, initiating a cycle that shrinks the lake even faster.

“Once you have more sediment, then the plants will grow, and that also slows the water down,” Graul said. “Then when the water flows down, more and more sediment drops out.”

The eventual result, if it goes unchecked for years, will turn Jewel Lake from an open-water lake environment into a riparian wetland – a water-logged area around the border of Wildcat Creek.

The East Bay Regional Park Board voted in July to explore options “ to maintain Jewel Lake as an open water body for the next 50 years.” 

“I don’t want it to turn into a meadow,” said Elizabeth Echols, who was appointed to the EBRPD board and who is now running for election. “We have other meadows.”

But the Park District board has moved slowly to allocate funds to study the problem, worrying many fans of the lake. No money has yet been set aside to fix it either. And keeping sediment from overwhelming Jewel Lake is not necessarily one of the Park District’s top priorities; it is just one of many capital improvements on EBRPD’s long list.

Jewel Lake ‘doesn’t necessarily want to be a lake’

Although Wildcat Creek is an ancient and natural part of the East Bay watershed, recorded by one of the early Spanish expeditions to Northern California in 1772, Jewel Lake would not exist on its own. The People’s Water District, the precursor body to EBMUD, dammed a portion of Wildcat Creek to use as a drinking water reservoir in 1921. In 1933, a year before the birth of  EBRPD proper, the reservoir was transferred to recreational use.

Because Jewel Lake is in fact a dammed river, and because its watershed is composed of highly erosive sedimentary and volcanic rock, Jewel Lake “doesn’t necessarily want to be a lake,” and requires upkeep to maintain its structure, said Graul. Absent other erosion control methods, the sediment needs to be regularly dredged out – at least every 20 years, according to a 2016 study by FlowWest for the East Bay Parks.

The lake was last dredged in 1991, and the study noted that “Jewel Lake has almost re-filled with sediment.”

The Park District does have plans to restore Jewel Lake, but it hasn’t yet decided on the best approach. The EBRPD board recently allocated $450,000 to hire Balance Hydrologics, a Berkeley survey and consulting firm, to study the proper approach to dredging the lake, as well as to conduct a detailed study on alternatives to frequent dredging.

There are a number of options, but none are simple. EBRPD could dredge the lake again, removing 10,000 cubic yards of sediment to restore it to its capacity from the last time it was dredged in 1991, and continue to do so regularly. Or it could dredge Jewel Lake once, removing the same amount of material, and then reroute the sediment-bearing Wildcat Creek around it. The lake would then be fed by a different system of weir structures (low dams used to regulate water flow) or pumps.

So far this rerouting  – which would actually move Wildcat Creek back to its position from before Jewel Lake ever existed, on the west side of Wildcat Canyon –  is the Park District’s preferred option. According to the 2016 report, an additional channel around the lake would let native rainbow trout move between the portions of Wildcat Creek up and downstream from the lake (they’ve been blocked from doing so since the stream was first dammed in 1921). There would be a restored habitat for Sacramento perch in the newly-dredged lake; the Park District had to relocate them in the late summer of 2014 when the lake first shrunk too much to accommodate them. The project could also include dredging an additional 400 cubic yards to create seasonal ponds that are liveable for California red-legged frogs but not for their invasive predators, bullfrogs, that require water year-round.

And importantly, routing Wildcat Creek around the lake means that Jewel Lake would be able to exist for years to come with little to no maintenance. The 2016 report, which first proposed the bypass, said that with that restoration method “the lake will not need to be dredged again for the 100-year life of the project because sediment delivery will be reduced by 653 cubic yards per year.”

In the meantime, the Park District is dredging sediment basins upstream from Jewel Lake. These are designed to capture sediment from Wildcat Creek before it reaches the lake. This project – delayed last year because of conflicting project schedules and permitting windows, Graul said – began in early October. Graul said the parks will also dredge the basins again during the rainy season next year.

The park district “have committed to doing that annually to make sure that the situation at least doesn’t get any worse while we’re looking at long term solutions,” said Echols.

Balance Hydrologics is supposed to present a final report on its plan for restoring Jewel Lake next summer or fall.  This means the physical restoration process won’t begin for at least another year or so, park district officials said.

Competing priorities

Part of the reason for the delay between the first report in 2016 and the work currently taking place is that the Park District has competing priorities. Repairing Jewel Lake is just one item on a long list of projects that include digging out 3,000 feet of underground creek at Sibley and Huckleberry parks, an expansion of Albany Beach, the construction of the new Encinal Beach, and the restoration of the Hayward Marsh.

“We need to balance [Jewel Lake] with 125,000 acres and the many other lands we have to manage,” said Graul.

To many Bay Area residents, Jewel Lake, despite its small size even in the best of times, is hugely important to their idea of the region, however. For years, Berkeley school students have gone there on field trips. Steve Taylor, a retired writer and songwriter, recalled going on school nature walks led by rangers in the 1950s, where he would look for muskrat dens and birds and fish. He has been going regularly ever since.

“It was a great place to watch the waterfowl that would come through during their mass migrations, and it was a great place to sit and be at peace,” he said. At Jewel Lake, he has been able to see herons, egrets, kingfishers, and duck species he doesn’t ordinarily see elsewhere.

Now, he said, the lake is “a ghost of what it once was.”

“It’s really kind of a tragedy if you think about the history there, and how much the lake has meant to people here,” he added.

“It’s still better than nothing, but there’s much more going on there in terms of animal life when the lake really has water.”

Lake-goers have also been concerned for the animals that call the lake home.

“I wondered what was going to happen to this pair of otters that have been happily cavorting around that watershed all summer long,” said Josh Greenbaum, who used to come regularly to the lake with his children. “They’re definitely a welcome visitor.”

“There’s just nothing there for the turtles, which I really worry about,” Taylor said. “They were endangered anyway. And I wonder if they’re surviving.” Western pond turtles, the West Coast’s only native freshwater turtle, live in Jewel Lake and are rated a “species of special concern” by the California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the lake has taken on a kind of spiritual significance for Bay Area residents seeking solace from an increasingly dangerous and chaotic world.

“During this period of quarantine our relationship with the lake really deepened,” Julie Freedman said. She and her 9-year-old daughter, Sora, began driving to the lake often after school to watch otters and ducks and ducklings and herons, often at different times of day to see how the animal populations changed over the course of a day.

“There was a lot of richness and learning and being present with nature,”  Julie Freedman said. “It was very sweet during a difficult time.”

Earlier in the year, Sora Freedman was able to walk out along a log in the lake to see the turtles basking there; they would usually slide off the log before she got to them. “It used to not go very far and slowly, it’s gotten farther and farther because the lake has started to dry out,” she said.

“The magic of the log was gone,” she said.

John Muir Laws (no relation to the 19th-century naturalist John Muir), a Bay Area naturalist and nature educator who has worked as a student interpretive aid for Tilden but is no longer affiliated with the parks, used to go to the lake to draw mergansers, occasional wood ducks, green herons, and the other creatures that live there.

“Encounters with wildness are increasingly difficult to find as our cities expand and our lives get busier,” he said. “Being able to go to a place like Tilden and be exposed to a variety of accessible habitats and the animals that have subsequently adopted those after our intervention is beautiful. And for a lot of people who cannot get to Yellowstone and Yosemite these are, although they’re managed, these are our wild places and our wild spaces.”

In 2016, the EBRPD commissioned a report on Jewel Lake that estimated the cost of dredging it to run from $312,000 to $520,000, plus extra for permitting costs, according to an op-ed written by Keigh Winnard, a lake visitor, and published in the Daily Cal in February. Winnard noted that that is the amount the Park District Board has just allocated to Balance Hydrologics to study the lake.

“The EBRPD’s management’s failure to dredge Jewel Lake in a timely manner poses an existential threat to the lake,” Winnard wrote.

Randy Shaw, who lives and raised his now-grown children in Berkeley, and went to the lake with them frequently from 1989 on, said he found the Parks’ $450,000 allocation to studying the dredging and restoring the lake “embarrassing.”

“It’s no mystery, what’s happened – it has to be re-dredged so we can establish the lake again, right?” he said.

“What are they waiting for?” he added. “It’s been heading in this direction for at least five years, if not longer.”

Berkeley born writer and songwriter Steve Taylor, 73, looks out on the dry Jewel lake bed. Taylor has been coming to Jewel Lake since he was in grammar school and says he’s never seen the lake so low. Oct. 20, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos
Berkeley born writer and songwriter Steve Taylor, 73, looks out on the dry Jewel lake bed. Taylor has been coming to Jewel Lake since he was in grammar school and says he’s never seen the lake so low. Oct. 20, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

Dredging and restoring a complicated process

But preparing to dredge and restore the lake is genuinely a complicated process, physically and legally, according to both Echols and Graul.

For one, the cost of just dredging Jewel Lake is now higher than the 2016 report estimated, both because the lake is now fuller and because permitting requirements have become more stringent. Echols said her staff recently estimated the current cost at more than $1 million.

“We need to satisfy all the requirements, and often these requirements are very conflicting, between the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Regional Water Quality Control Board,” said Graul.

Each of those permits requires surveys and studies on the environmental impact of any work in the area.

“We can’t just go out and hire someone tomorrow and say, ‘Okay, here’s a million dollars, go dredge the lake,’” Echols said.

One issue is that dredging Jewel Lake would involve removing the wetland plants along with the sediment on which they’ve settled, which would mean modifying what has technically become a riparian wetland habitat. This complicates both permitting for the project and the eventual restoration of the lake – Graul said he would like to be able to maintain some of the new wetland and willow habitat, which is better for migratory birds and songbirds.

The restoration itself could also have unpredictable complications that need to be carefully evaluated beforehand – routing the Wildcat Creek up the slope around the lake could potentially start to erode the hillside, said Graul. And dredging the lake before having a detailed plan for restoration could preclude some restoration methods, he added.

Still, Graul said the sight of the lake this dry season “added an extra layer of urgency” to projects to restore it.

While the park district studies the issue, some lake-goers lament the loss of a place with natural beauty and emotional character.

Laws, the naturalist and educator, described the “magical realism,” in particular to young children, of a visit to Jewel Lake back in wetter days: stepping onto the wooden boardwalk, walking between the dense dogwood plants, emerging from the thickets at the end, and suddenly finding oneself facing open water and among that water’s reptilian, avian, piscine, and mammalian residents. Now, Laws said, with the vegetation grown up on its banks and its waters receded, Jewel Lake is invisible from the end of the boardwalk.

“You wonder where your lake has gone,” Laws said. “There’s not a jewel at the end of that necklace.”