Ephemeral Geyser


Slideshow (34 shots)

Our principal diversion on a cold, drippy Saturday: A water main broke up on McGee Avenue at Buena Avenue, a couple blocks from our house. We were on our way back from a walk with The Dog and saw an unusual amount of water washing down the gutters on Buena and around the corner down California Street and decided to investigate. Just uphill from McGee and Buena, water was pouring through a heaved-up section of pavement. It seemed to be worsening slowly, and after 10 minutes or was fountaining about four feet into the air. We took some pictures, talked to some friends in the neighborhood who were taking in the scene, then walked back home.

As I sat down to look at the pictures, my friend Bruce, who lives a couple doors up from the break, called. He said I needed to get back up there–the water was shooting 80 feet into the air. Kate and I ran back up the street. This was the scene looking up McGee. The water was jetting into the air onto and over a house owned by well-known Berkeley artist David Lance Goines. The volume of water was enough that it caused a flood in his backyard, and he was overheard to say that at least a little water was getting into his home. A couple dozen neighbors gathered to watch the show.

Firefighters on the scene monitored the break while they waited for the East Bay Municipal Utility District, our water provider, to dispatch a crew. One of the firefighters told me they could shut down the flow of water, but wouldn’t as long as it didn’t seem to be a threat; it might help EBMUD diagnose the break if they saw the water flowing, he said. But when the flow broke loose, the firefighters got busy trying to close valves up and down the street. They eventually managed to limit the flow to about a 10-foot column that slopped onto the sidewalk. As soon as they did that, a single EBMUD employee showed up (an hour and 12 minutes after I began taking pictures, by which time the utility had already been alerted). The water guy knew what he was doing. It took him nine minutes to shut down the geyser).


Update: After the geyser was shut down, I heard one of the firefighters ask the EBMUD guy, “Do you know how old the main is?” “Yeah, I know–it’s older than you. It’s older than you, and you’d have to be born before 1910 to be older than it.” My friend Bruce, who says his house was built in 1905, said the main must be at least that old. He’s lived there since the late ’70s, and said that when he’d moved in, an older man rooming next door talked about growing up on the block back when the first houses were built there. Buena Avenue was a cow path, Bruce recalled the man saying, and “Farmer McGee,” for whom McGee Avenue is named, used to drive cattle to pasture down to the west.


After dark, I went out an took a look at what the EBMUD crew was doing. Bruce and a friend were watching the proceedings. They said there had been an oval-shaped hole in the main not much bigger than two hands held together. That was a pretty impressive show of what water under pressure can do when forced out of a small opening (hydraulic mining, anyone?).


I heard one other story about the day: Kate was standing in the gaggle of neighbors that came to watch the geyser. A woman who lives a couple doors down Buena related how she had been out walking her dog when she noticed water bubbling through the pavement in front of David Goines house at Buena and McGee. His car was parked right where the water was percolating up. She knocked on his door and told him he might want to move his car. He did.

Filling in the Map

Sunday was spent noodling with HTML in the morning, then in the afternoon getting in the Tiny Car (the Chicago-bred Toyota Echo) and driving from Berkeley out to Antioch, up the Sacramento River to the Delta Cross Channel, then east to where our local utility district stores our water as it flows out of the Sierra Nevada. The destination was chosen because the East Bay Municipal Utility District runs a fish hatchery on the Mokelumne River, and I wanted to see that. The route was dictated because the Delta Cross Channel is the route by which much of the water exported from Northern California down to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California is diverted from the Sacramento. I’ve driven past and ridden my bike by the Cross Channel gates dozens of times, but, not knowing what the heck they were, I never took note of them. Anyway, the drive was part of a long-term project I think of as filling in my map–touring what is largely terra incognita and figuring out how the pieces relate to each other.

It was a beautiful day, anyway, even with no end in mind. I saw water. I saw levees. I met a lonely bridgetender and photographed him and his antique bridge. I encountered a dead skunk and a curious ostrich. And then when I got out to the hatchery, I was hours too late — it had closed at 3 p.m.