Islais Creek & Muwekema Ohlone Park


with David Erickson and Neighborhood Public Radio (April 20, 2007)

This conversation between Amber Hasselbring and David Erickson was broadcast live on Neighborhood Public Radio during the San Francisco World’s Fair of 2007.

David Erickson lived on the banks of Islais Creek since 1993, and he was involved in creating Muwekema Ohlone Park, where the creek meets the San Francisco Bay. During our conversation, David described the growth and destruction of the Muwekema Ohlone Park, and provided a historical context for Islais Creek. I was surprised to learn that Islais Creek and surrounding wetlands were once the primary source of drinking water for San Francisco residents.

click here to listen to the conversation


“Many, many years ago before Europeans came into our area, there ran a pristine body of fresh water through large expanses of marshes in the southeast sector of present day San Francisco. This body ran almost 3 miles inland to Alemany Boulevard and was fed by numerous tributaries, springs and small creeks. This area was the home of a cornucopia of marine wildlife that fed the original human inhabitants- chiefly the Muwekema Ohlone Indian Tribes. To this day there still exists large shell mounds in the vicinity. This river also had huge migrations of herring and other species of fish, which still migrate yearly to this area to the degree that it brings in the commercial fishing vessels by the hundreds. Until the late 1800’s this body of water provided 85% of the drinking water for the city of San Francisco. This body of water is now known as ‘Islais Creek.’” Excerpt from a grant proposal by David Erickson.


Where is Islais Creek? Can you describe for listeners the location of the source, its route above and below the concrete to where the creek empties into San Francisco Bay?

The original Islais Creek ran from the San Francisco Bay 3.5 miles west to the headwaters in Glen Canyon. Before landfill, Islais Creek was the largest body of water in San Francisco, consisting of a gigantic marsh whose shoreline extended all along Hunters point, Visitacion, Bernal, up along Alemany, the Mission area near Dolores, and ending along the eastern slopes of Potrero Hill. (that is why the most seismically unstable land in San Francisco is within these old shorelines) The original mouth of Islais at the Bay was nearly 2 miles wide, extending from Point Potrero to Hunters Point, and provided 85% of the drinking water for San Francisco.

Before the arrival of the Europeans, this area was a cornucopia of flora and fauna that fed the original peoples of San Francisco, which included vast populations of fish, shrimp, oysters, herring, elk, deer, bear, fox, coyote, possum, jack rabbit, duck, geese, pacific chorus frogs, red legged frogs, and a vast array of plants that provided food, shelter and boat building materials, known as the tule reed. What remains today besides the miniscule headwaters in Glen Canyon, is a channel 3/4 miles in length, extending from the Bay, westward to the 280 Freeway.


Where is Muwekema Ohlone Park?

What is left of the Park is adjacent to Pier 80 on the shores of Islais Creek.


When did you start working on the park?

In 1994, perhaps a bit earlier, the local community began to garden here as well as the area along Illinois Street. These local volunteers were playfully named the “Islais Creek Guerilla Gardeners.”


Can you describe some your accomplishments along the way?

By 1990 and 1991, the park received numerous environmental education and habitat restoration grants, and at this juncture, the Park was named after the original peoples of San Francisco, the Muwekma Ohlone, with the written permission and blessings of the modern day Muwekma Ohlone Tribe (signed by Rosemary Cambra and staff).

Some of the accomplishments include a MOCD grant of $10,000, a SF URP grant of $30,000 and a CDBG grant of $58,612 as well as conducting many habitat restoration events and history lectures to thousands of local youth in the community, plus various tours from environmental groups including the Sierra Club and many schools.

Another very significant accomplishment was the comprehensive habitat survey conducted by Jack Laws previously a staff member of the Academy of Sciences. In addition, one of his colleagues, Kelly Nelson, created a comprehensive interface with local schools and community.


How did the park get its name?

The Park was named after the original peoples of San Francisco, the Muwekma Ohlone.


Can you describe the inaugural event in the park?

The most memorable inaugural event was the Native American Film Festival on Islais Creek (May, 2001?).


What did Muwekema Ohlone Park look like in the full growing season?

The Park was a verdant, green wildlife habitat that attracted both humans and wildlife, resplendent with birds, butterflies, Pacific Chorus Frogs, marine life Trees, coyote bush, pickle weed, and plants too numerous to list here. My favorite memory was the music of hundreds of Pacific Chorus Frogs singing at night.


What kind of plant and animal life could you find there?

To list a few: Ghost Shrimp, Herring, Bass, Perch, Halibut, Burrowing Owls, Gophers, Peregrine Falcons, Duck Hawk, Red Tailed Hawk, Ducks, Geese, Pacific Chorus Frogs, Dragon flies, Butterflies, Bees, Hornets, Great Blue Herons, Lesser Blue Herons, Humming Birds, Snowy Egrets, Jack Rabbits, Mocking Birds, Earth Worms, Wolf Spider, Garden Spider, Lined Shore Crab, Yellow Shore Crab, Purple Shore Crab, Killdeer, Black Crowned Night Egret, Caspian Tern, Western Grebe, Western Gull, Mourning Dove, Bushtit, Belted Kingfisher, Green Bottle Fly, Bumble Bee, Hermit Crab, Club Tunicate, Bay Mussel, Bent Nosed Clam, Tunicate, Soft Shelled Crab, Loons, Western Sea Roach, Giant Mussel Worm, Star Tunicate, Acorn Barnacle, Hairy Gilled Polychaet and numerous terrestrial and marine plants too numerous to mention. A full habitat survey was conducted by Jack Laws and posted on the website, In addition, the Academy of Sciences donated an archival inventory of the area, which is also on the web site. Perhaps the most incredible find by Jack Laws was a Ring Spotted Dorid, which had never been found in the entire San Francisco Bay and is archived at the Academy of Sciences.


Who owns Muwekema Ohlone Park on the banks of Islais Creek?

Actually, according to federal and state law, the citizens of California are the symbolic owners, not the Port of San Francisco, who are designated as custodians who must provide public access and for maritime use only.


Can you briefly describe the series of events that led to the destruction of Muwekema Ohlone Park? Tell us when each of these events took place.

a. Muni, claiming they wanted to provide electricity to the Light rail, began horizontal drilling under Islais Creek (and the Park) late in 2001. This was called the Duct Bank drilling project, which consisted of 3 five-foot diameter polystyrene tubes running north south.

b. In November 2001, the soil above the drilling collapsed, causing the PUC sewer out fall line to collapse, spilling millions of gallons of treated sewage in Park and Islais Creek.

c. Subsequently, nearly 30% of the Park was excavated for emergency repairs.

d. Following emergency repairs, the area around the PUC force main was pumped full of concrete for stability.

e. Being landfill area, the concrete caused the force main to collapse again.

f. Again, the force main underwent emergency repairs, destroying at least another 15 to 20% of the Muwekma Ohlone Park.

g. The $40 million Duct Bank drilling project was abandoned and later named Islais creek transmission line project having little if nothing to do with the Third Street light rail. We now understand that Muni had intended to lease the duct banks to PG&E. Alternate routes of much higher cost were implemented later.

h. In April 2005, the Port of San Francisco bulldozed Illinois Street and western end of the Park to build a new bridge over Islais Creek, destroying the last sliver of habitat for the last remaining colonies of Pacific Chorus Frogs.


I understand that that in November of 2004, just before the Port of San Francisco bulldozed the park to make way for the Illinois Street bridge, volunteers came out to save Pacific Chorus Frogs and other amphibians at the Muwekma Ohlone Park.

Yes, many volunteers came to not only save the Pacific Chorus Frogs, but all plants, art, fencing, statuary, irrigation and gardening supplies were donated to any one who could remove them, I would estimate we found homes for 70% of plants, including a huge donation to Building Resources, just across the Creek.


Can you describe how you saved the frogs and where you moved them?

All volunteers, on hands and knees, square inch by inch, overturning all rocks, wood, etc and lead by Jim McKissock.


Jim McKissock will be at McLaren Park EARTH DAY tomorrow leading frog nature walk.

The frogs were relocated nearby to Potrero Hill, propagated for several years and distributed to new and other locations around the city. Numerous new habitats in parks and schools in San Francisco, using the original populations of frogs from Islais Creed are now producing tens of thousands of new frogs and froglets.

(click the arrow to listen to a recording of the pacific chorus frog).



Can you describe what the park looked like in its various stages of growth and destruction? 

The Park was gorgeous, full of life, children, and community in its heyday. Before habitat restoration, the Park was still a cornucopia of wild life.


What does the park look like now?

Now, several years later, it is nearly devoid of life with a new bridge built by the Port of San Francisco, spewing the toxic diesel exhaust of thousands of trucks daily.


What are the city, MUNI and the Port of San Francisco doing to restore the Muwekema Ohlone Park on the banks of Islais Creek?

As far as I understand, nothing, meaning no environmental mitigations, no habitat restoration, etc.