UC Berkeley News
Web Feature

UC Berkeley Web Feature

Dirty work for a clean creek

– For several hours at midday on Tuesday, a small army of UC Berkeley students talked (and stalked) trash — as, together with other campus volunteers, they scoured the banks and bed of Strawberry Creek for other people's garbage.

Students gather trash along creek
Classmates Dana Brown, Obiamaka Ude, Aviana Thomas, and Chris Lange collect litter at a spring cleaning of Strawberry Creek. (Cathy Cockrell photo)

"At the end of the day, this stuff ends up in the bay," explained freshman Dana Brown, a participant in the semi-annual Strawberry Creek cleanup. "I never realized how much stuff there is," she mused, bending to tease a food wrapper from the undergrowth.

Her cell phone rang. Brown set down her plastic trash bag to take the call — from classmates in a course called Environmental Earth Sciences (a.k.a. EPS 80) — and was joined shortly in her quest for rubbish by Aviana Thomas, Obiamaka Ude, and Christopher Lange.

Together the four worked their way downstream — stopping under a stone bridge, while they were at it, to do a "creek observation." As part of professor Bill Berry's class, Brown explained, each student selects a section of Strawberry Creek to monitor weekly throughout the semester, and must also visit the creek's mouth, near the Berkeley Marina, to observe what "stuff" finds its way downstream to the San Francisco Bay.

The cleanup — held once in the fall (before first rains have a chance to transport discarded trash down to the bay) and once in the spring — typically attracts 25 to 50 volunteers. This time the event saw a "phenomenal" turnout of nearly 100 (many of them EPS 80 students lured by the promise of extra credit), says Tim Pine. An environmental protection specialist in the campus's Environment, Health and Safety (EH&S) unit, Pine was stationed at a table near Sather Gate to hand out gloves, trash bags, and preparatory advice to cleanup volunteers. The day was not only bright but breezy, so "all the flyers on Sproul Plaza, in about an hour, will end up in the creek," he warned. "Don't feel you have to get into the creek to help."

Creek cleanups are one important element of EH&S's Strawberry Creek restoration program, along with reintroducing native fish and insects, removing invasive exotic plants from the banks, and replacing them with native flora, says Pine. He notes that volunteers typically bag about 1,000 pounds of trash per cleanup. Food wrappers, beverage cups, leaflets and newspapers account for much of the haul; more exotic finds from past events include a bicycle wheel, a shopping cart, a computer  chair, and "a nice copper tea pot" that he displays on his desk as a trophy.

But public-education outreach efforts over the past few years may be working, Pine believes. The current crop of students, for one, seems "to be taking better care to not let their garbage hit the ground," he ventures — with a caveat that "there's no scientific rigor involved in making that statement. Perhaps I'm just an optimist and I see the creek as being half full instead of half empty."

Strawberry Creek now has its own website, offering information on natural history and management, as well as a link to the Strawberry Creek Fund, where one can make donations to support creek stewardship.