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Campus recovers $40K for Strawberry Creek damages
EH&S plans to use funds reimbursed by negligent subcontractor for stream stewardship

| 22 October 2003

For aquatic life in Strawberry Creek, March 22, 2002, was a very bad day. Early that morning a construction subcontractor involved in the retrofit of Hearst Memorial Mining Building backed a truck into a fire hydrant. Water from the high-pressure water main shot into the air, spilled into the underground steam-heating system, was heated to 125°F, then flowed into the creek’s north fork.

According to a report from Environment, Health and Safety (EH&S), the entire fish population in the section of creek between the spill and the West Circle culvert, where the stream goes underground, died as a result of the accident. So did crayfish and most other aquatic organisms in the north fork.

For EH&S staff, who work to protect the stream, it was a blow. “We felt pretty strongly about this,” says Greg Haet, the unit’s associate director for environmental protection. “It was a purely negligent act that damaged the creek. The contractor wasn’t careful.” So EH&S decided to do something the campus has rarely done before — seek reimbursement for natural-resource damages.

Capital Projects’ director of contract claims, Michael Cole, agreed to lead the effort — and after “a lot of dogged work” (evidenced, he says, by more than 100 e-mail exchanges with the parties involved) succeeded in getting the subcontractor’s insurer to repay the campus for its time, materials, and restoration efforts. The full amount, received this August, was $38,523 — of which $26,830 went to EH&S, $11,843 to Physical Plant – Campus Services (PPCS), and $850 to Capital Projects.

Haet, for one, is pleased with the outcome. “Strawberry Creek is a vital campus resource that EH&S and many other campus departments work hard to keep clean,” he says. “We don’t tolerate it being polluted and will continue to hold contractors and others responsible when they cause damage.”

A renowned example of creek restoration, Strawberry Creek is believed to have once supported more than a dozen species of native fish (including steelhead salmon), all of which vanished during the early 20th century due to habitat degradation. In the 1980s, however, campus faculty and staff developed plans for its revival — which EH&S has helped to execute by restocking its waters with native fish species like California roach minnow, Sacramento suckers, three-spined sticklebacks, and prickly sculpin.

Since the March 2002 incident, the north fork has made a partial recovery, as species living upstream from the spill have repopulated the damaged section. But it often takes a decade for a creek to fully recover from an event of such magnitude. To prevent similar accidents, EH&S, PPCS, and Capital Projects are collaborating to implement procedures that will better protect the creek from inadvertent damage by construction contractors.

EH&S will spend its portion of the funds for creek restoration and enhancement. “We’re thinking pretty broadly on this,” says Haet. “Projects under consideration include the purchase of monitoring equipment; hiring students to restock aquatic organisms, monitor creek health, and do revegetation planning; and using some of the dollars to help secure matching grants for new initiatives. We may even do targeted education efforts, teaching people how to protect the creek.”