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A creek (once) ran through it

November 13th, 2014 by Cris

As Bay Area Creeks go, Alameda Creek is rather large. It drains a watershed of around 700 square miles the bulk of which lies east of Niles Canyon out toward Livermore, Altamont and points south. After the creek exits Niles Canyon it crosses six miles or so of alluvial plain then another two miles of what used to be marshland before discharging into San Francisco Bay proper. This lowland section of the creek was prone to flooding during Northern California’s wintertime rainy season. Streams of subtropical moisture, the “Pineapple Express,” can deliver impressive amounts of moisture during the Bay Area’s winter storms. Trenching studies in the alluvial plain have revealed layers of mud and gravel deposited by major floods that historically occurred every 50 to 100 years. Each major flood would inundate the flats between hill and marsh with floodwaters eventually reaching the bay through various outlets – historically Mt. Eden Creek, Old Alameda Creek, Coyote Hills Slough, and even Newark Slough. The marshes once reduced flooding by capacitance – absorbing the oncoming rush of water – and by keeping the marsh channels deep though tidal scouring. As marsh gave way to salt ponds these benefits were lost.

Patterson Creek vestige

The vestigial remnant of what was once Patterson Creek.

Early settlers in the East Bay took measures to protect their property against floods. They built on higher ground, raised their living quarters above the ground plane, and consstructed levees here and there. As time passed settlements became more expansive and flood control measures followed suite. The last major floods along Alameda Creek happened in the 1950s and they were impressive. The 1950s floods spurred the construction of major flood control channels along Old Alameda Creek and the Coyote Hills Slough. Unlike the sinuous marsh channels they replaced, the new flood control channels, completed in the early 1970s and 500 feet wide, are relatively straight shots from the flats to the bay.

Patterson Creek vestige

Looking over the remnant of Patterson Creek toward the Coyote Hills.

When you hike down the levees of the flood control channels you encounter cut-off remnants of the original creek beds among the adjacent salt ponds. I have recently visited two of these sites. Little snippets of the original Alameda Creek lie orphaned on either side of the current day Old Alameda Creek Flood Control Channel. I often stop to photographs a particularly interesting stretch adjacent to the ruins of the Alvarado Salt Works. Here there is a collapsed bridge that once spanned the creek (when it existed there). It now spans a smallish salt pond puddle. Along the former creek channel there are pilings for what was a major boat landing in the 19th century. In the current day the old creek channel fills with the winter rains and turns a dull green. During the summer it dries out and turns a bright yellow with dark red accents along the periphery.

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Salt Pond E6C – November 2014

November 11th, 2014 by Cris

The first phase of South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project (SBSPRP) work in the Eden Landing Ecological Reserve (ELER) played out between the San Mateo Bridge approach to the north and the Old Alameda Creek Flood Control Channel to the south. After several years of remarkable Phase I progress, the SBSPRP is now starting a Phase II set of ELER projects. These will be largely sited south of the Old Alameda Creek Flood Control Channel and north of the Coyote Hills. I am expanding my photographic coverage of the area with the idea of capturing a set of “before” photographs taken before Phase II interventions. Last Sunday Claudia and I headed out to Salt Pond E6C, which proved to be an interesting subject.

Salt Pond E6C

View from above Salt Pond E6C looking south.

The ExC ponds are a relatively compact group of salt evaporation ponds arranged along the eastern flank of Turk Island, the northernmost outlier of the Coyote Hills. Pond E3C has an intriguing salt work ruin in its center (Plummer Bros. Salt Works, c. 1869?) while E1C and E2C have a close relationship with Turk Island. My “Bush Past Prime” photographs were taken in E2C. However, the target of this session was Salt Pond E6C, which I have not visited before, and its neighboring ponds E4 and E5 to the north as well as E4C and E5C to the south.

Salt Pond E6C

The intersection of Salt Ponds E6C (left), E4 (upper right), and E5 (lower right). My VW van is visible in the center of the photograph.

This was a somewhat strange day for photography. What looked like an inversion layer kept a hazy atmosphere of water vapor near the ground. We started under dead calm conditions and then got the 7.5-foot Rokkaku aloft as a 5 mph breeze arrived. Once again I was thankful for the relatively light weight of my new Canon EOS-M rig. By the end of my 1-1/2 hour photo session the wind had freshened to 14 mph or so and the Rokkaku was straining under the load. It is always nice to get the gear back down on the ground under such circumstances.

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I am ready for my closeup

November 9th, 2014 by Cris

On a fine early October afternoon I met journalist Wayne Freedman out at Battery Mendell in the Marin headlands to do a video interview. It is always fun to watch a pro at work so the afternoon proved entertaining as Wayne set up a variety of shots to support the interview narrative. Cameras were strapped to my camper for trips through the old Ft. Barry Tunnel, footage was shot of me schlepping backpacks and assembling gear, and so forth.

Battery Mendell

Your author on the wrong side of the camera.

When it came time to fly the camera the day’s dense fog dissipated as though on command and the breeze sorted itself out after some variability (two-kite day). I then spent an hour or so flying around the century old Battery Mendell while Wayne shot process footage. This post includes some sample images from the session.

Battery Mendell

Battery Mendell gun station. Click through for more aerials from the session.

Edit: The segment is now available online. I think Wayne put together a sympathetic and informative piece. As a side note it could also serve as the textbook illustration for “bad hair day.” Just coming off a camping trip I was way behind on getting a haircut and doing the interview after four hours of sweaty kite flying was probably a bad idea. Yikes.

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Homage to Rothko revisited

November 6th, 2014 by Cris

My first forays into the South Bay salt pond landscape were fueled by a photographic interest in color and texture. This theme still holds great appeal as I often find places that offer the potential for abstract or painterly images. My second landscape theme sprang from the realization that my aerial images contained traces of the South Bay landscape’s many transitions. Discovering and deciphering the vague remnants of boat landings, salt works, railroad projects, and infrastructure remains entertaining. As I head into my second decade of wandering the South Bay a third theme has gained firm footing – documenting the landscape’s current day transition. And there is change aplenty as the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project (SBSPRP) has bold initiatives underway in Alviso, Ravenswood and Eden Landing.

Homage to Rothko 2009

The original “Homage to Rothko: photograph taken in September 2009.

Each year I have a South Bay hiatus between February and September in deference to nesting birds. This good, commonsense condition is part of my Special Use Permit that allows KAP in the South Bay and access to otherwise off-limits areas. I anticipate my first outings in the fall eagerly for they provide a sense of how things have progressed during the year. And each year I am struck by how much change I find in the landscape. Formerly fallow salt ponds acquire natural colors and textures followed by vegetation after being reconnected with the tides. The construction of levees, flow control structures, and nesting islands redefines pond components and the nature of water flow through them. New trails, viewing platforms, and signage foretell expanding public access.

In this context of change I am delighted to find image pairs that illustrate progress in the restoration efforts. The abstract “Homage to Rothko” is one of the more popular images in my book Saltscapes and a personal favorite. While out shooting on Sunday I found myself near Salt Pond E6B so I stopped to look for the rusting 55-gallon drum that marked the location of the original image taken five years ago. Having spotted the drum I sent a camera aloft with the hope of getting a similarly framed shot even though the wind direction was off by 45 degrees or so. I lucked out when a short lived shift in the wind drifted the camera cradle out over the pond and provided a comparison image.

Homage to Rothko 2014

Salt Pond E6B revisited for a photograph of the same scene five years later.

While the 2014 view differs greatly from the original “Homage to Rothko” I am fond of this version for it shows how much change has occurred in Salt Pond E6B, a disused salt pond managed since 2009 to reduce its residual salinity. I am also pleased that the new image has its own painterly feel (best seen in a larger version of the image). In the 2014 view the only dry surface is the upper side of the barrel, all else is below water, and the wind produced ripples lend an abstract texture to the image as though brush strokes.

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Color and Texture – Salt Ponds E12 & E13

October 30th, 2014 by Cris

Last Sunday I headed out to ELER with the idea of taking some follow up color and texture shots of the shallow waters in the newly reconfigured Salt Pond E12 complex. On arriving I found these ponds largely dry with huge bags of pea gravel placed on several of the “bird islands” dotting the landscape. I then spent most of the afternoon shooting the new viewing platform construction project at the Oliver Salt Works ruins (see previous album).

Color and texture near the Oliver Salt Works site
 

The c. 1920 Oliver Salt Works ruins (top) and 2013 levee construction (middle) combine to provide interesting textures in this plan view.

At one point Claudia and I walked down to the E12 sub-divided ponds and while they were relatively dry there was interesting color in the flanking ditches. We also walked westward from the Oliver Salt site to the construction project building a new flow control structure at the west end of Salt Pond E13. Between these two side trips and photographs at the Oliver Salt site the afternoon produced a nice set of color and texture images. This post shares a few samples.

Color and texture near the Oliver Salt Works site Color and texture near the Oliver Salt Works site
 

The ditches flanking Salt Pond E12’s new dividing levees have taken on various colors (residual halophiles?).

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Salt Pond E2

October 30th, 2014 by Cris

In the kick-off briefing session for this year’s round of photographs, the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project (SBSPRP) management team expressed interest in coverage of the bay edge of Salt Pond E2. This pond lies just north of the Alameda Creek Flood Control Channel on the outboard side of the pond complex that will be involved in the upcoming Phase II of the Eden Landing Ecological Reserve (ELER) projects. I visited the site several years ago but did not take photographs at that time.

Salt Pond E2 - October 2014

A thin line of levee separating pond from bay.

Salt Pond E2 is the largest of the ELER ponds. On this visit it held water that appeared, in color and turbidity, quite similar to bay water although there were growths of algae and cyanobacteria evident here and there. The western edge of the pond is defined by a thin levee that separates the pond from the bay proper. A large strip of marsh lies just south of the pond, nestled between the pond levee and the flood control channel. I had not realized that this bit of marsh was relatively large.

Salt Pond E2 - October 2014

Detail from the marsh on the south edge of Salt Pond E2.

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Construction at the Oliver Salt Works ruin

October 28th, 2014 by Cris

As the Phase I restoration activities wind down at the Eden Landing Ecological Reserve (ELER) the day approaches when areas of the reserve will be open to the public. The plans have long called for public access to levee-top trails, the construction of a kayak launch on Mt. Eden Creek (a new Eden Landing!), and a chance to see the impressive Oliver Salt Works ruins at close range.

Construction at the Oliver Salt Works site

Construction site for the new public viewing platform at the Oliver Salt Works ruins.

Over the last year or so it seems that with each visit to Eden landing I find new projects underway in anticipation of public access. These include benches and signage near the outlet of Salt Pond E9, signage standards installed near the row of wind pump ruins in Salt Pond E14, construction well under way at the kayak launch site, new fencing to denote areas out-of-bounds, and most recently construction of viewing platforms underway at the Oliver Salt Works site.

Construction at the Oliver Salt Works site

Flirting with the construction crane. My nifty Nikon Hypsometer let me know that the crane top was 232 feet away and 106 feet high.

Last Sunday I headed out to ELER with the idea of taking some follow up color and texture shots of the shallow waters in the newly reconfigured Salt Pond E12 complex. On arriving I found these ponds largely dry with huge bags of pea gravel placed on several of the “bird islands” dotting the landscape. So, I wandered over to the Oliver Salt Works site where I found construction had begun on public viewing platforms. This construction became my subject for the day.

Construction at the Oliver Salt Works site

Plan view of the tidy construction site.

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Eden Landing Redux

September 26th, 2014 by Cris

Salt Pond E12 managed pond project
 

Old textures blend with new in the flats just south of Eden Landing (Salt Pond E12).

Go back 150 years or so and Eden Landing held a prominent place in the East Bay cultural landscape. Here topography and entrepreneurship combined to provide a boat landing on Mt. Eden Creek that served as one of the area’s central cargo hubs. By the end of the 19th century the railroad era had arrived and Eden Landing, like others, faded into obscurity. Later yet, Mt. Eden Creek itself disappeared as diking for salt ponds transformed the landscape. Up until a few years ago Eden Landing Road terminated in a barren plain of fallow salt ponds.

Eden Creek bridge
 

Mt. Eden Creek – newly restored in this 2008 view. Six years ago Salt Pond E12 (upper right) was a barren plain.

This has been a landscape in transition for over a century and happily the transformation continues as the area around Eden Landing has been designated the Eden Landing Ecological Reserve, part of the larger South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project. Within the last few years large swaths of disused salt ponds have been returned to tidal flow, other areas have been transformed into shallow ponds managed as wildlife habitat, and the creek itself has been restored to tidal flow. Eden Landing Road once again terminates at a navigable channel.

Salt Pond E12 managed pond project
 

Salt Pond E12, newly subdivided, as seen from across Mt. Eden Creek (view toward south).

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Alvarado Wastewater Treatment Plant

September 25th, 2014 by Cris

Alvarado Wastewater Treatment Plant

A vertical panorama of the plant.

As I begin a new season of photography in South San Francisco Bay I have a list of a couple dozen subjects to visit. Some of these are new requests and some are locations that I photographed in previous years. One interesting request was to photograph the Alvarado Wastewater Treatment Plant in Union City, California. The idea was to document an example of urban infrastructure lying adjacent to the South Bay salt ponds, a relationship made somewhat tense by the prospect of sea level rise and attendant issues of flood control.

Alvarado Wastewater Treatment Plant

A horizontal panorama showing the flats stretching to the Coyote Hills.

On a pleasant Sunday afternoon I was photographing near Salt Pond E7 when I noticed the light over near the water treatment plant was starting to look pretty good. This was late in the day and as a large bank of clouds descended from the north it was clear that the light would soon turn bland. Even with the prospect that the light would fade I pulled my kite down, packed up, and headed toward the plant fingers crossed. Arriving 10 minutes later I went through a speed drill to get the kite and then the camera aloft. I was able to get a few nice images of the plant just as the last few patches of sunlight headed south and my Galen Rowell moment passed. It was then time to pack up and go home.

Alvarado Wastewater Treatment Plant

… and there goes my pool of light.

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Salt Ponds E12 & E13 revised and revisited

September 11th, 2014 by Cris

The days grow shorter as summer draws to an end. This must come as something of a relief to the Snowy Plovers, Terns, Avocets, and other bayland birds as it marks the end of their long nesting season. It a relief to me as well because with the end of nesting season my Special Use Permit (nicely up to date) allows me to photograph more broadly in the South Bay wildlife refuge. In celebration, I had a coordination meeting this week with the managers of the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project followed by a photography session in the Eden Landing Ecological Reserve.

Construction at Salt Pond E13

Construction site for a new flow control structure between Mt. Eden Creek and Salt pond E13.

Eden Landing has seen rapid change during the last few years. Last year my photographs showed a large construction project to subdivide Salt Ponds E12 and E13 into an array of smaller managed ponds. These are to be kept at various levels of salinity, as though salt evaporation ponds, but with the goal of providing habitat rather than producing salt. The array of new ponds covers what was a bare plain five years ago in which one could see the faint traces of many 19th century salt ponds of a similar scale. I am interested in seeing how the landscape develops. Will the 19th century traces still be readable after the 21st century construction?

Salt Ponds E12 & E13 revised

Newly subdivided ponds with islands for roosting in the area that was once Salt ponds E12 and E13.

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