Backyard Creeks

Parent Q&A

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  • We're preparing for a remodel and addition to our California bungalow, but we recently discovered that the City of Berkeley prohibits additions within a certain distance of a creek. According to their maps, there is an open creek in our yard, but we have never seen it. Neither have our neighbors, who supposedly have the same creek running through their back yards. We will soon have an architect looking into this, but meanwhile, we wonder if anyone preparing to add on to their house has faced this kind of problem?

    We did an addition on our house in 2008 and this came up for us. It was a long process! There are certain restrictions on construction due to setbacks based on your lot, but also setbacks based on the creek. So for example, if there is a creek in your yard, you can only construct a dwelling up to the setback (hypothetically, let's say 10 feet from the creek border). Depending on where your creek is located, it might very well affect whether or not you can do the construction you want. 

    In our case, we had a "creek" under our house that went from San Pablo Park, under our lot at an angle, and ended at San Pablo Avenue. We found out about it when we were planning our own remodel. Our architect did an amazing amount of work with the planning, zoning, and creeks ordinances departments in the City of Berkeley and we were able to get our creek taken off the list of creeks in the ordinance, and we were able to do the work we wanted. A few weeks ago, I was at the zoning department and I saw the creek was no longer listed on my property.

    Please consider contacting our architect, Turk Kauffman at turk [at] (510) 847-0897. He has a lot of experience with this and will definitely be able to help you.

    The "creek" is very likely in a culvert, which runs under the property. If there is a culvert, it will be an uphill battle in Berkeley to develop on it. It's also possible that it has been long since diverted. If this is something that was never disclosed when you bought the house, you may want to review your title insurance policy (good for the life of your home purchase) and see if you can make a claim, since this seriously affects the value of the home, both for you, and future owners.

    Speaking as conservation planner from another area, not as someone experienced in this situation in Berkeley. It's not uncommon for a creek to be mismapped, and hopefully City of Berkeley is understanding to such a situation. Note that their Code (Section 17.08.030) defines a creek as follows: "Creek" means a watercourse (1) that carries water from either a permanent or natural source, either intermittently or continuously, in a defined channel, continuous swale or depression, or in a culvert that was placed in the general historic location thereof; and (2) the water either merges with a larger watercourse or body of water, or is diverted into an engineered structure that does not follow the general historic course of a creek. A "creek" does not include any part of an engineered structure developed for collection of storm or flood waters (e.g. a storm drainpipe) that does not follow the general historic course of a creek. 1. A "permanent or natural source" includes a spring, artesian well, lake, estuary, or a rainfall drainage area that covers at least one-third acre (14,520 square feet).

    If there's no "defined channel, continuous swale, or depression," I wouldn't think you'd be bound by the setbacks.  Note that biologists/planners may be very liberal in this definition, e.g., if there's any topography that might concentrate water flow. 

  • Backyard creek restoration expertise?

    (2 replies)

    Our creek in the El Cerrito hills channels a LOT of storm run-off during the winter and has suffered extreme erosion, cutting away closer to the bridge and yard/house.   Looking to hire someone to assess the situation and work on some restoration.

    Hi - I am not sure - but there is a local active group called Friends of Five Creeks. They meet monthly at St Alban's on Washington Ave i Albany. Suspect they will know a lot about creek restoration.

    You can contact your local resource conservation district (Most likely the Contra Costa RCD).  RCDs are  government entities (special districts) and tend to specialize in erosion control and protecting the watershed.  All areas have one.  They should be able to find someone to help you do the restoration properly and may have opportunities for partially funded programs to help with your restoration.  Good luck. 

Archived Q&A and Reviews

Thinking about buying a house that has a creek

Sept 2008

We're thinking of buying a house that has an open creek sited w/in less than 20' of the house. There's very little evidence of it at the moment (damp spots), but during the winter rains we're assuming it swells b/c of the drainage system that's in place. We'd love to hear about any experiences re living w/ a creek on your property. Does it turn your yard into a swamp? Does it enter your house? Has it damaged your house? Have you tried to divert it away from the house? Any complications w/ the city of Berkeley re the creek ordinance when trying to do work on the house? Creek Wary

I grew up in a house on a hill w/a creek running behind it in Lafayette. My parents are now dealing w/a nightmare. The foundation is a wreck thanks to the constant sogginess of the soil and in turn the instability of the hill above them. They have spent a fortune trying to stabilize the foundation. The company they hired drilled down 30 ft. and still didn't hit bedrock. Every house on the street has some degree of problems. And don't forget the variety of ''critters'' that are drawn to a creek. I can't discourage you enough not to risk it. Lived There

My property has a culverted creek, which daylights 3 houses down the street. The creek there is no more than 10' from my neighbors' house and has never been a problem as far as I know. They are very conscientious about keeping it clean and not impeding its flow, and very much enjoy it. They're able to grow a lot of beautiful ferns and other moisture-loving plants, which I envy. If I were you I'd ask neighbors if the creek has ever overflowed to gauge whether or not you might need to deepen/widen the channel or build berms along the side. Obviously, if you see evidence of water damage along the creek-side of the house, walk away! The Creek Ordinance is new, or at least newly publicized, so I haven't heard a lot about enforcement. Like most people in Berkeley, I built my deck without a permit (before the Creek Ordinance was passed) partly to avoid potential problems and the extraordinary expenses the City's requirements can incur (in my case, precisely locating the culvert at my expense). I knew from neighbors that it was at least 10' below ground, so we were never in danger of piercing the pipe, and we overbuilt from an engineering standpoint. Being the steward of a live creek is a blessing (though not free of challenges), so if you choose to take the plunge, enjoy it! Underground

As property owner in Berkeley who loves Creeks and lives where a creek was many decades ago, but isn't now (it was culverted to the street way back when the neighborhood was developed), I know a teensy bit about the Berkeley Creek Ordinance. A couple of things..., go downtown and get the most up to date map that Berkeley has for the Creek Ordinance and see where the property is in relation to creeks on the map. You may also be able to find this on line, but get yourself downtown, any way and talk with the folks in that particular department. Tell them you are considering buying a property that may have a creek running through it and ask them to give you the info on the current Creek Ordinance. Once you get all that info and understand the implications for any future property owner, remember that the Ordinance could change in the future (near or far) and so could the map.

Another VERY important thing to note is that you should not assume you can move or divert (or fill in) the creek channel. Nor should you assume you can put anything rocks or concrete or wooden barriers on the creek banks to keep those in place. This could get in in hot water with State and Federal agencies (Fish and Game, Fish and Wildlife, Army Corps of Engineers, etc.). What we did was put in better drainage (French drain) below the slab portion of our home and installed a French drain around the uphill perimeter of our foundation. Be aware that in Berkeley you are not allowed to officially have a pipe going from your house to your neighbors property, for getting rid of rainfall or groundwater or whatever - although neighbors do do so informally in the hills. try to figure out where you would shunt the drained water to on your own property, or how you would pump the rain water out to the street. French drains are also good cuz you never know when a spring might show up under your house, or when the water table might otherwise get really high under your house.

Also, property owners with creeks need to be even more careful about using fertilizers and pesticides in their gardens, keeping pet wastes out of the creek, and about having invasive plants in their gardens.

Creeks are great, AND you are wise to think carefully and research before buying property with one (potentially) on it. Buyer be ware. Mom

Here's the City of Berkeley site for the creek ordinance, if that's at all helpful to you. Scroll down for the very cool interactive map.