Newt at UC Botanical Garen
The UC Botanical Garden’s Japanese Pool is home to many newts. Credit: Laurie Twitchell

After the Golden Gate Exhibition on Treasure Island closed in 1939, the Japanese exhibit, consisting of a garden and pond, was relocated to the UC Botanical Garden. The serene garden, with its waterfalls, lanterns and bridge, attracted plenty of visitors when it opened in Berkeley in 1941, but it also brought over some unexpected salamander guests: California newts (Taricha torosa) and rough-skinned newts (Taricha granulosa) flocked to the pool to frolic and lay eggs. 

More than eight decades later, UC Botanical Garden Director Lewis Feldman is worried that the newts will abandon their longtime home if the Japanese Pool doesn’t undergo major repairs soon.

Leaks have plagued the shallow, artificial pond for decades. Until now, the garden’s approach was to patch cracks as they popped up. But that’s no longer enough — the pond’s structural integrity has been compromised, Feldman said, and the garden needs to empty the pool of plants and critters, seal the cracks, fill in several sinkholes and resurface the bottom. The hope, he said, is that it’ll allow the pond to remain for at least another 80 years. 

The newts, Feldman said, are “part of the diversity of nature,” and “their disappearance will probably impact on the garden in ways that we probably now can’t understand.”

Feldman said they can’t afford to wait much longer. Garden volunteers have found multiple dead newts lodged inside the cracks — they get pulled in as the water drains, are unable to free themselves and eventually drown. (Juvenile newts are born with gills but develop lungs as they grow older. Adults can breathe through their skin, but that doesn’t provide all the oxygen they need.)

The garden is aiming to raise $150,000 by the end of June so that work on the pond can start in August and conclude well before the breeding season next spring. Since launching the “Save our Newts” campaign on May 25, the garden has already raised $50,000. 

Japanese Pool
The garden’s Japanese Pool was built using materials from the Japanese Exhibit at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition held on Treasure Island. Credit: UC Botanical Garden

The garden has a $4.5 million operating budget, much of which comes from donations, memberships, rental fees for Julia Morgan Hall, and the plant shop. Campus support only makes up around 15% of the budget, and Feldman said they don’t have time to wait for the university to allocate funding to repair the pond.

The tight timeline is key as it allows them to displace fewer newts, Feldman said, as newts go into hibernation in the summer and breed in the pool in the spring.

The garden hasn’t done an official survey of newt population in the pool, but former Garden Director Emeritus Paul Licht has followed the newt population in the garden for nearly two decades.

“The newts were also one of my first research projects when I joined the Cal faculty over five decades ago,” Licht wrote in a public statement. “I became alarmed when the population showed a noticeable decline during the drought years but was encouraged to see more breeding this past winter. Unfortunately, the newts are now facing a new, perhaps more serious threat: the loss of their home!”

Garden is still dealing with fallout from winter storms

The UC Botanical Garden, founded in 1890 on the site that’s now Moffitt Library, is also grappling with other expensive — and urgent — projects. 

It was dealt a damaging blow earlier this year when the March 21 storm destroyed several historic trees, sheared off sections of two coast redwood trunks and toppled a third. Finding an arborist willing to take on the job of removing the 150-year-old redwood was a challenge, Andrew Doran, the director of collections at the garden told Berkeleyside in May — at the time, two companies had already declined bidding on the tricky project. 

The garden still hasn’t had luck finding a contractor willing to bring in a crane to remove the two compromised trunks, but they’ve finally found a lumber company willing to remove the felled trunk and saw it into planks to be used in future garden projects, Feldman said. It’ll cost them another $60,000. 

“One of the trunks that blew down fell into the Asia area of the garden, which has really taken a hit and really made a big mess,” Feldman said.

The garden has had a long history of dealing with uncooperative weather; in October 1962, heavy rain (15 inches in three days) flooded Strawberry Creek, which swept away the Japanese pool’s carefully placed boulders and swept away the original Yukimi-gata lantern.

This story was updated after publication.

Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...