Archive for March, 2013

Headwater landscaping

26 March 2013

The advantage of living in the highest hills is that there’s no one upstream from you. At the same time, hilltop dwellers may find it easy to forget what it’s like downstream.

gravelwash

This lot sits at the head of a stream valley at the edge of a regional park. The large expanse of impermeable pavement collects rainwater, and the terrace above it discharges more runoff in a large drainpipe. Ordinarily the ground would absorb most of the water and release it gradually, the way that trees are used to. Instead the flow that results here is strong enough to carry away a lot of gravel. Oh well, call in another truckload.

Turn around and track that water and gravel over the property line into the Regional Open Space. With the extra water, the stream is already cutting a deeper channel into its valley. As the years go by, the valley walls will slump into the stream and the trees will fall with them. A big wad of sediment now working its way downstream will clog the habitat below, smothering the bottomland and its ecosystem. Meanwhile the erosion of the stream valley will work its way headward. Eventually, within a lifetime, the spreading collapse will reach the edge of this large lot (and the neighbors’ lots) and whoever owns it will have an expensive problem. This pristine street may disappear from the map, like others before it in the Oakland hills.

I’m not giving a professional opinion here; it’s obvious to common sense. The landscape of the hills is fragile, but expert advice can make living there much more sustainable.

Wood fossil

22 March 2013

I was lucky enough to examine this large specimen of fossil wood that I was told came from the hills of San Leandro.

SLfossilwood

People have told me about and showed me pieces of fossil wood from the East Bay hills before. I’m no expert on the subject, and I haven’t done a lot of fossil hunting in Oakland. But we have young terrestrial rocks around here in addition to the abundant marine rocks—primarily the Orinda Formation, of Miocene age. I assume this came from there.

People have told me about fossil wood in Wildcat Canyon, but that’s regional park land where collecting is forbidden. This specimen, I was told, was from EBMUD land, where collecting is not expressly forbidden, although I assume that vertebrate fossils (animal bones) are protected. I have purchased an EBMUD permit and have been looking forward to using it for responsible geologizing.

MapView: Not ready for Oakland (updated)

11 March 2013

The U.S. Geological Survey’s programmers have made a nifty nationwide map server called MapView that lets you play with geologic maps from most of the country. Naturally I zoomed in on Oakland. I expected to see something like this when I looked at the Toler Heights area.

graymerbit

It’s kinda garish, but it’s from the USGS and as authoritative as these things can be. Instead, MapView shows me this:

dibbleebit

It’s crisp, it’s suitable for colorblind readers, but it’s wildly different. It shows simpler divisions and more limited areas of bedrock. It shows the active trace of the Hayward fault running on the opposite side of the hill from where it actually moves. Then there are things I notice: the names of the rock units have an antique feel and very few faults are mapped. And what’s with the ludicrously small landslide (“Qls”) and serpentinite pod (“sp”) in the middle? Why such a mixture of vagueness and precision?

In fact, this is not a USGS map at all, but a map issued by the Dibblee Foundation. Dibblee is the late and distinguished Tom Dibblee (1911–2004), popularly considered “the greatest geologic mapper who ever lived.” I consider him one of the greatest reconnaissance geologic mappers ever because that was his M.O.: to take his Jeep out to various high spots in poorly mapped territory and sketch out the bedrocks in the landscape onto a map base, then do field-checking until it was ready to publish. His skills were more than just fieldwork; he knew the literature and the community too, both scientific and industrial. I don’t have the talent to question his talent.

But. If you download the map and look at its sources, you’ll see that it’s based on Dibblee’s fieldwork in 1963 and a short return visit in 1977, plus three “preliminary maps” issued by the USGS, one of them in 1967 and all of them superseded by the map I use, Russ Graymer’s USGS Map MF-2342 published in 2000. I can only infer that this map was based on Dibblee’s old field notes as edited, posthumously, by John Minch in his role as official map editor for the Dibblee Foundation. I don’t question his talent, either, but it would be a major undertaking to update this map, one that has not been done.

What’s a few years, you might ask; the rocks never change. Well, consider that this map misplaces the Hayward fault. How do I know? It ignores the experience of Jim Lienkaemper’s meticulous mapping, which checks out in the field wherever I’ve looked. This is from his 1992 compilation of the fault trace and the supporting evidence.

lienkaemperbit

The Dibblee Foundation map is beautiful, but in this respect it is simply wrong. It didn’t go through the rigorous USGS review process; in fact I am confident that if it were submitted it would be rejected.

I’m going to ask the MapView people to reconsider using these maps in preference to USGS maps. For now I have to say that MapView is not curated to my standards.

UPDATE: The MapView administrator responded to me promptly and politely; I’ll excerpt his reply: “the point you raise has been a real concern . . . but [we] didn’t know the entire story nor had we been presented with a clear example of the problem, as you did in your blog. . . Our starting assumption is that newer maps supersede older mapping, and so unless there’s a compelling reason to not do so, we show the newer map. . . . The most effective way to improve upon what’s shown in MapView is for local and regional experts to weigh in with their opinion and experience, as you have done. I sincerely thank you for contacting us, and assure you that we’ll remove the Dibblee Foundation maps in all cases where there isn’t an older map of that scale that is ‘better’.” Translation: We pick maps by their release date and we won’t adjust that until someone squawks.

The other attractive feature of the Dibblee maps is that they’re standard 7.5-minute quadrangles, which makes things much easier for the MapView programmers. But ease of programming is not the same as usefulness.

West Oakland topography

10 March 2013

West Oakland has always been flat and easy to build on, whether it was for factories like the old Shredded Wheat plant built in 1915 (still operating as California Cereal Products) . . .

defremeryview

or for the middle-class Victorian homes that are West Oakland’s pride. It takes a lot of walking around to note the subtleties of the landscape. Except around Raimondi Park, the area was never a coastal marsh but was slightly elevated sand dunes, the same Merritt Sand that underlies downtown. In the Ralph Bunche neighborhood, north of 18th Street between Market and Adeline, the homes perch above the street, not by much but consistently.

ralphbunche1

Even century-old homes sit up the same way as the newest places. Presumably the streets were dug down, but maybe the lots were piled up too. Perhaps flooding was a concern, and all the earth-moving created more desirable lots here. Only a historian with intimate local knowledge could say.

ralphbunche2

If you look north along any of these streets (Chestnut, Linden, Filbert, Myrtle), you’ll see the land sink at Grand Avenue where the Merritt Sand leaves off.

The I-980 swath

1 March 2013

980swath

Interstate 980 is a huge convenience for drivers. I appreciate it every time I drive around town. But its construction was a major injury to Oakland’s neighborhood fabric, splitting West Oakland from downtown harshly and irrevocably. Every time I walk over 980, as here on the 14th Street overcrossing, I ask, Did they really need to hack out all this space for the freeway? Farther north, where the road becomes route 24, it’s narrower and they left a fringe of homes on Martin Luther King bordering the highway. But on 980, the excavation took out a full city block between Castro and Brush streets.

Maybe the difference was the sand. I-980 is built in the Merritt Sand, which underlies downtown and West Oakland up as far as Grand Avenue. The ancient dune sands probably can’t sustain a steep slope on the sides of the freeway. And the builders had to dig deep to make room for the overcrossings—most of the other freeways are not below grade. A narrower roadway, with tall vertical soundwalls on either side (like the new part of the Nimitz farther west in Bay mud), would not be as safe during earthquake shaking, and without room for the vegetation it would be a dreary place indeed. Bad as it is, it could have been worse.


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