Tilden Regional Park’s Jewel Lake: A wildlife habitat in danger of extinction

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Jewel Lake was the most accessible and, until recently, the most diverse wildlife-viewing site in the East Bay Regional Park District’s Tilden Regional Park. But now, it is being buried alive by silt, sand and gravel. Since 2014, Jewel Lake has become too shallow and too small to attract or sustain most of the fish, bird and animal species that it once did. This has significantly reduced the diversity of wildlife in Tilden Park and the size of the habitat for many species of wildlife adjacent to Berkeley, which is one of the most densely populated areas in the East Bay. The EBRPD’s management’s failure to dredge Jewel Lake in a timely manner poses an existential threat to the lake.

Situated in the Tilden Nature Area, Jewel Lake provides a uniquely protected environment for wildlife. Unlike most places in the EBRPD, dogs are prohibited in the Tilden Nature Area, and wading, swimming, fishing and boating are not allowed at the lake. It is also the most accessible wildlife-viewing site in Tilden, less than 400 yards from a parking lot on a level, partially paved fire trail. Stationed at the visitor’s center at its entrance, staff naturalists conduct guided nature walks and make the Tilden Nature Area a particularly valuable educational resource.

In 2013, the lake was large and deep enough to attract and sustain Sacramento perch and many waterfowl species, including buffleheads, hooded and common mergansers, goldeneyes and pied-billed grebes, among other species. But by 2014, EBRPD was forced to remove the Sacramento perch from the lake because it had become too shallow to sustain them.

The lake is on a dammed portion of Wildcat Creek and is filling with silt, sand and gravel that is washed down from the creek. A study commissioned by the EBRPD concluded that Jewel Lake should be dredged every 20 years. It hasn’t been dredged since 1991. This study estimated that removing 10,400 cubic yards of sediment, which is necessary to restore the lake to its capacity after it was dredged in 1991, would cost between $312,000 and $520,000 (depending on the disposal site) with an additional $150,000 in permit costs. But since 2013, when data for the study was collected, so much additional silt, sand and gravel have been deposited in the lake that the amount that will have to be dredged or excavated may have increased by up to 50%, with a corresponding increase in costs, according to the EBRPD.

The EBRPD has allocated $400,000 in its 2020 budget for yet another study of and cost estimates for dredging the lake and the feasibility of a sediment transport or bypass channel along one side of the lake, which was already recommended in the 2016 study. Based on the EBRPD’s past behavior regarding the lake, it is likely that Jewel Lake will become completely filled with sediment and be demoted to yet another one of Tilden Park’s many meadows before this new study’s recommendations are implemented. Simply put, the EBRPD’s management may study Jewel Lake to death.

EBRPD board member Elizabeth Echols who represents Ward 1, which includes Tilden Park and Berkeley, was appointed to the board and is up for election later this year. A demonstration of popular support for Jewel Lake is planned for Feb. 15 at 1 p.m., when participants will hold hands around the lake to give it a giant group hug. (Participants are urged to comply with all Tilden Park regulations during this demonstration and to take the AC Transit bus 67, as it will help participants avoid parking problems at the Tilden Nature Area.) It is hoped enough people will attend to make it a success and attract the attention of Echols and the EBRPD. Embrace the lake — come to Jewel Lake the day after Valentine’s Day to show it some love!

Keith Winnard is a UC Berkeley alumnus and longtime Berkeley resident.