Campus foliage tamed after neglect

Poison oak, African gazania threaten native plant life

By Benjamin Bassham, Staff Writer

Saws are roaring, trees are screaming and wooden bodies are being hauled away.

Contra Costa College’s grounds are seeing a flurry of activity in recent weeks, but some areas are getting more attention than others.

CCC Building and Grounds Manager Bruce King, who has been overseeing the work, said, “The (district) Chancellor (Helen Benjamin) wanted us to spruce up the grounds. A board member made a comment. It might be something that was passed on to all three district colleges.”

The main effort has been to trim the college’s trees and plantings into shape. The work has included the clearing of poison oak from hillsides and maintenance of the college’s venerable palm trees, but has not included Rheem Creek, King said.

Rheem Creek runs through the campus, following the Hayward Fault line, and is recognized as a protected wildlife habitat, supporting possums, squirrels, turkeys, hummingbirds and deer.

Six years ago the creek benefited from the Rheem Creek Restoration Project, which removed trash, pruned trees, stripped out invasive species and replaced them with native plants, biotechnology professor Katherine Krolikowski said.

The creek has seen little maintenance since then, and it shows. Short raised placards were installed denoting the names of the native plants, but now many of them are lacking their plants.

“Naked Buckwheat” declares one placard, indicating an empty field of wood chips. “Scarlet Monkey Flower” says another, indicating more of the same wood chips.

King said, “Some of the plants plain old died. (The placards) were put in with a little cement.”

Elsewhere, European ivy, and African gazania are spreading out, threatening the native plant life. In general the creek exhibits broken branches, dead trees and garbage, and seems like an obvious target for the chancellor’s requested “sprucing up.”

But, it isn’t as simple as charging in with some shears and good intentions.

“It’s hard for us to actually get into these creeks. We can’t just go in. We have to get special permits from the Fish and Game Department and the Army Corps of Engineers,” King said.

The creek’s status as a protected watershed works against it, erecting walls of red tape, and preventing essential maintenance.

“We can do some things. The Urban Creek Council has given us some guidance,” King said.

King and his workers are permitted relative liberty further from the creek banks, and are obliged to clear any blockages of the creek that occur, but the creek itself is not explicitly within their domain.

“I’m not sure if anyone maintains it. Whose job is the creek supposed to be?” King asked.

The creek’s tributary running between the Student Services Center and the Campus Center construction area is in worse shape, having more native trees, but heavy growth of European ivy and a thicker accumulation of garbage.

Biological sciences department Chairperson Chris Tarp said, “Whenever I go there I come back with a sack full of trash. I wish there were a more organized effort to clean up the (area).”

Dr. Krolikowski, who frequently sends her biology students to get samples from and study the life in the creek, said, “At least half of my Bio 110 students note the trash down in the creek.”

The tributary was not a focus of the restoration project and what native plants are there come from work done prior to the most recent restoration project.

“Over the decades the tributary was planted with native plants to cover a fairly naked area, and to provide resources for biology. I’d love to see it made better,” said Dr. Tarp, who in his youth planted some of the now 50-year-old trees.

Krolikowski said, “I would like to see the ivy removed so that part of the creek can really shine. I think we have a really great resource that’s been allowed to grow over.”

The Rheem Creek Restoration Project was funded by a grant, was carried out by volunteer workers and that work is now slipping into decay. 

“That’s the problem with grant-funded projects. The money runs out, then there’s no one to maintain it,” Krolikowski said.

A sign at the creek reads; “Rheem Creek Watershed, Ours to protect” — a pledge that no one in particular has been keeping.