Lake Merritt in Oakland

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Lake Merritt is a large tidal lagoon that lies just east of downtown Oakland, California. It is surrounded by parkland and city neighborhoods. A popular 3.1 mile (5 km) walking and jogging path runs along its perimeter. It is historically significant as the United States' first official wildlife refuge, designated in 1870.


The lake is formed where several creeks empty into San Francisco Bay. It was surrounded by 1000 acre of wetlands in the time when Ohlone Indians fished, hunted and gathered food along its shores. By 1810, the remaining Indians were removed to Mission San José and the estuary and 44800 acre of surrounding land was deeded to Sergeant Luis Maria Peralta to become Rancho San Antonio. After gold was discovered in 1848 in present-day Coloma 125 mi to the northeast, Anglo squatters led by lawyer Horace Carpentier took control of the East Bay area which was to become downtown Oakland, including the estuary known as "San Antonio Slough." In 1856, Peralta fought and won a United States Supreme Court case against the squatters but further court cases between his sons and daughters would greatly diminish their holdings. The Peralta brothers had to sell much of the land to Carpentier to pay legal fees and new property taxes. Oakland was incorporated in 1852 with Carpentier as its first mayor and the estuary became the city's sewer.

While some believe that Lake Merritt is affected by the tides, it is actually a lacustrine area that has lake levels that act completely independent of the coastal tide changes. The lake acted as a sewer, it was regarded as ideal for sewage because of the chemical contents of the lake which have high acidities causing the lake to decompose human feces at very high rates. Sixty miles of brick and wood channeling sent the broken down sewage to the bottom of the lake to then be eaten by bottom feeders. The stench at the lake during the decomposition of the sewage was a problem for Oaklanders on the west shore and residents of Clinton and San Antonio villages on the east.

Children's Fairyland is a 10 acre park designed by William Russell Everett, and built in 1950 in Lakeside Park. When Walt Disney was thinking up ideas for Disneyland, he visited Children's Fairyland for ideas.

Starting in 1961, Oakland's "Downtown Property Owner's Association," and the "Central Business District Association" repeatedly advocated for extending Alice Street directly through Snow Park, which was then the grounds of the Snow Museum, past the Schilling Gardens and the Bechtel Building at 244 Lakeside Drive, and down to the Lake's edge on 20th Street. They purportedly sought to alleviate motorist traffic congestion that might be caused by the closure of Broadway during construction of the nearby BART line. The plan met stiff opposition from Oakland's City Council in October 1964, which, as reported by the Staff of the Oakland Tribune at the time, told downtown property interests to "quit wasting its time."

Necklace of lights

A "necklace of lights" encircles Lake Merritt. Featuring 126 lampposts and 3,400 "pearly bulbs", the necklace was first lit in 1925. In 1941, the lights were dimmed to comply with World War II blackout conditions. After a decade-long campaign, the lights were again illuminated in 1985.

During Oakland's annual gay pride celebration, the city replaces the white bulbs with multicolored bulbs.

Birds of Lake Merritt

The lake features a healthy year-round population of birds. It sees seasonal fluctuations in the types of birds that call the lake home.

Year round

All year round, the lake is home to moderate Canada Goose, Black-crowned Night Heron, Great Egret, Cormorant, American Coot, and Western Gull populations. There are also small Mallard Duck and Pelican (both American and Brown) populations.

Rainy season

From November through March, the lake plays host to a very large population of Greater Scaup and Lesser Scaup, which spend most of their time floating on the water, mostly just sleeping. Smaller numbers of Canvasback, Bufflehead, and other migratory diving ducks are also present during the cold season.

Dry season

From June until the end of September, the lake's Canada Goose population increases significantly; Canada Geese become nearly ubiquitous around the perimeter of the lake. In late summer and early fall, a moderate Pelican population also arrives.

Other species

In addition to birds, the estuary is home to many rare and endangered species including the Presidio Clarkia, Pallid Manzanita, Tiburon Buckwheat, Oakland Star-Tulip, Most-Beautiful Jewel Flower, Western Leatherwood, and the Alameda Whipsnake. Many rare species are localized to serpentine soils and bedrock.

Cleanup and restoration of Lake Merritt

Because storm drains in downtown Oakland and surrounding areas drain directly into the lake, trash and nutrient pollution have become the largest problems affecting Lake Merritt. Increased levels of chemicals like nitrogen and phosphorus cause algae blooms, which deplete the water of oxygen. The fountains provide oxygen to about an acre around each one. A proposed aeration system was never approved by the City of Oakland. Trash removal is coordinated by the non-profit Lake Merritt Institute under contract with the City of Oakland. Regular Saturday and Tuesday volunteers, the Peralta Service Corporation (part of the Unity Council), St. Paul's Episcopal School, and HandsOn Bay Area have been cleaning the trash since 1997. Schoolchildren and their science teachers volunteer by cleaning the lake with nets.

The Institute sponsors clean ups five days a week during the school year and four days a week during the summer. Individuals can also work alone using the four "U-Clean-It" boxes maintained by the Institute. About 1,000 to 5,000 pounds of trash are removed monthly.

Pollution and environmental crimes

In addition to nutrient pollution, more toxic agents have drained into the lake from time to time. In 1998, about 20 gallons of diesel fuel leaked into the Lake following a "freakish accident" in the basement of the Caltrans building in the 100 block of Grand Avenue.

On 27 June 2011, the Oakland Fire Department and California Department of Fish and Game responded to a diesel fuel spill that covered five acres of the northwest side of the lake.

 Fire Department officials were unclear about the exact source of the fuel but theorized heavy rains that likely flushed the fuel down a nearby storm drain.


Measure DD, a $198 million Oakland City park bond measure, passed with 80% voter approval in 2002. The measure will improve the lake area by adding park space and altering the infrastructure that surrounds it. One prime example of a needed improvement is on Lake Merritt's south shore. The current configuration of 12th Street is six lanes in each direction, as an expressway merging and splitting from 14th Street and International on either side, which many consider a detriment to pedestrian and bicycle access to landmarks on the other side, such as Laney College, Oakland Museum of California, Kaiser Convention Center (closed) and Lake Merritt Channel. The dam is backed by a concrete wall supporting 12th Street westbound, a sidewalk, and unusable tunnels, interrupting the trail. Part of the Measure DD project involves returning 12th Street back to a major street, with three lanes in each direction to calm traffic, and realignment to add park space (the dam being demolished for this), and adding eleven more necklaces of lights to the gap. Lakeshore Avenue on the east is slated to be narrowed to two lanes and striped for bicycle lanes, and an existing three-way triangular intersection (20th, Harrison, and Lakeside) in Uptown Oakland in front of Kaiser Center is slated to be converted to two-way cross traffic. The Lake Merritt Channel will also be daylighted where it crosses under the east split of 12th Street through a culvert; the reconfigured 12th Street will have a bridge crossing over the channel.

The renovation of Lake Merritt, paid for with money from Measure DD, has been stalled by an environmental review lawsuit, which was filed in 2006 by a group of concerned residents, "Friends of the Lake," as well as cost overruns for the project. On October 17, 2007, an Alameda County Superior Court judge dismissed a lawsuit intended to prevent cutting trees around Oakland's Lake Merritt, making way for city workers to begin removing the trees in the spring.

Several sections of Measure DD work were completed in 2008. The 1909 Municipal Boat House renovation into Lake Chalet restaurant was completed. Reconstruction of El Embarcadero between Grand Avenue and Lakeshore Avenue was completed. Lakeside Drive from just north of E 14th Street to 19th Street was narrowed from 4 lanes to two and a bicycle lane added. Finally new landscaping along the west side of the lake from 14th to 19th street and the east side from East 18th Street to El Embarcadero were completed. The largest part of the Measure DD work: "12th Street Project" Demolition/Construction of the replacement of the Frickstad Viaduct (built 1950), aka "12th Street Dam", and the roadways and tunnels between the Kaiser Convention Center and the southern end of Lake Merritt begun in mid-May 2010 is scheduled to be complete in Fall 2012. The official Groundbreaking ceremony for the 12th Street Project took place on May 6, 2010 near the Frickstad Viaduct. The new Lake Merritt Plaza is a high-rise located in downtown Oakland, California. It has 27 stories and stands at 371 feet (113 m) tall.

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