RREA
University of California
RREA

Urban Forestry

BOB AND MARY LU BURCHARD: URBAN FORESTRY

Martinez, CA – Sometimes a grant from the Renewable Resources Extension Act (RREA) plays a major role in a project; sometimes, a minor role. Always, the project funded by the grant is part of a whole. Take the restoration of Strentzel Meadow, for example.

Mary Lu and Bob Burchard, who joined University of California Master Gardeners in 2001 and 2003, respectively, have been planting trees and weeding the meadow on the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez.

If there is a beginning to this story, it is in 1998, when people living in homes near Strentzel Meadow decided to solve a problem. Although Strentzel Meadow is part of the John Muir National Historic Site, it had been used as pasture since before the land was deeded to the U.S. Park Service. Water had been diverted from the meadow’s natural streams into ditches on each side of the meadow. During heavy rains, runoff eroded the meadow and flooded streets and houses between the meadow and Alhambra Creek. The sediment muddied the neighborhood and the creek.  Every year, the flooding was worse. The neighbors, members of the Alhambra Creek Watershed Planning Group, began working with Contra Costa County on a solution.

To make a long (seven-year) story short, the community solved the problem. The ditches were converted to a floodplain. A meandering stream was created in the meadow to slow the water. A structure was built to funnel the water into a five-foot diameter pipe that runs under the neighborhood and into the creek. Native trees, shrubs and grasses were planted to slow the water and catch sediment. Non-native species were weeded out. This spring, the last native roses, sedges, cottonwood and willow trees were planted and caged to protect their young shoots from deer. Now the focus is on establishing plants and populating the meadow with wildflowers, including rare and endangered natives.

All told, restoring Strentzel Meadow cost $170,000 in hard cash provided by a grant from the State Water Resources Control Board and $300,000 in volunteers’ time and donated materials. Dozens of individuals, grass-roots organizations, and businesses and government agencies were involved:

Contra Costa County – project management, final project design, fiscal agent.

Friends of Alhambra Creek – grant application, project management, volunteer coordinator

Los Robles Native Plants (Zentner & Zentner) – plant donations

National Park Service -- $70,000 contribution, meadow owner.

Natural Resources Conservation District – grant application, technical support.

Strenzel Meadow neighbors – project initiators, easement dedication,  planting and weeding

University of California Master Gardeners – planting and weeding

Urban Creeks Council – initial project design.

The organization at the nexus of the effort, Friends of Alhambra Creek (FOAC), was founded by some Martinez residents in 1991. Now chaired by Shirley Skaredoff, FOAC members work doggedly to improve the creek and its 16 square miles of watershed. They host creek clean-up days, monitor the creek, sample its waters, and undertake restoration projects.

“This has been one of the most fun things I’ve ever been involved in,” says Igor Skaredoff, a retired chemist and FOAC member who’s married to Shirley. “This is a community story as much as an environmental story. When you pull all these different kinds of resources together, it makes for a much more robust kind of thing, because you get the whole community involved.”

When the first willow stakes were planted in Strentzel Meadow on Dec. 16, 2003, most of the volunteers were from the local Shell Oil Company refinery, says Igor Skaredoff. Two months later, about 85 volunteers, including several local elected officials, gathered at the meadow for the first major community-planting day. Later, community members planted a valley oak in memory of Mike Eisenberg, a local county supervisor’s former chief of staff who had been a key figure in the project.

Since then, the Strentzel Weed Warriors, organized by Elaine Jackson, showed up twice a month to plant and cage trees, and weed and maintain the meadow.

For the Burchards, the Strentzel Meadow restoration satisfies both of their interests. Bob likes trees; Mary Lu loves native plants. “California natives are what I’m really trying to focus on. Getting rid of invasives and non-natives like this thistle,” she says as she yanks a thorny plant from the ground. She educates children about native and invasive plants, and helps them plant and maintain gardens at their schools.

So far, the restoration is making a difference, says Igor Skaredoff. The first water samples up- and downstream of the site show that less sediment is flowing into Alhambra Creek. And the neighbors no longer worry about floods. “It’s actually working the way it was supposed to,” he chuckles.

Strentzel Meadow is now another gem in San Francisco Bay Area’s urban forest, a haven in the middle of a heavily populated area dominated by streets, highways, parking lots and big buildings. When the willows and cottonwoods grow, they’ll provide wildlife habitat and further improve water quality. The meadow will also be a refuge for rare and endangered native plants. Eventually, the National Park Service plans to open the area to the public. Nearby residents and tourists alike will be able to enjoy picnic and easy hikes in an accessible of natural California.

And where is the RREA connection in this project? RREA funded Carl Bell, a University of California Cooperative Extension regional advisor on invasive plants to do research and writing for a series of brochures about non-native plant species that are invading California. The brochures provide photos and information about the plants, which create fire hazards in the summer, ruin habitats for native birds and mammals, and, after habitat destruction, are the second most important cause of loss of biodiversity. He sent copies to Bethallyn Black, who works in the Contra Costa Cooperative Extension office. She gives them to the county’s Master Gardeners, such as Mary Lu Burchard, who specialize in educating people about and restoring native plant habitats.

-- by Jane Ellen Stevens
July 2005

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