Potrero Hill Filmmaker Digs Up Past of Historic Creek

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At one time, Islais Creek was a vital source of fresh water for San Franciscans. About 85 to 90% of the City’s drinking water is believed to have come from it, and it helped early Portuguese, Italian, and Irish vegetable farmers in the Bayview District grow their produce during the 1850’s.

The creek had two main branches: one starting from the southern slope of Twin Peaks and the other from near Cayuga Avenue and Regent Street. Both would join up where Interstate 280 is now located, and flow into the San Francisco Bay.

But, after the onset of the Gold Rush and the population boom that came with it, the creek became increasingly polluted. Garbage, sewage, and other unpleasant contents from nearby slaughterhouses in Butchertown filled the waterway. Originally, it was said Islais Creek covered an area of nearly 5,000 acres. Today, only remnants of the creek still exist, as its water content has been reduced by about 80% from its original state. The creek no longer provides drinking water to San Francisco. Much of what remains is now utilized within the City’s sewer system.

Bill Gollihur, a filmmaker from Potrero Hill, hopes he can share the cautionary tale of Islais Creek in The Islais Creek Film, a new independent documentary he is currently working on. Gollihur hopes that, by telling the story of the creek’s diminishment from a vital resource to a forgotten sewage waterway, audiences will be pushed to think more deeply about their surrounding urban environment.

“I had driven by it so many times and always wondered why it just abruptly stopped,” Gollihur said. “It seemed like it was a really good story, so I just started to pursue it more and more.”

“The story is going to be told as a day in the life of the creek,” Gollihur said. “We’re going to follow a person from the beginning of the creek at the Bay all the way up to where it starts in Glen Canyon.”

The filmmaker hopes that the story of Islais Creek will inspire viewers to take action to preserve their local environment.

Joel Pomerantz, a natural history educator in the Bay Area, says creeks, like the Islais, are a unique geographical feature for the city of San Francisco.

“There’s a river in most cities in the world, but San Francisco doesn’t have anything like that,” Pomerantz said. “Instead, we have creeks. They get fairly substantial during wet periods and minimal during dry periods, and Islais is one of the two biggest creeks we’ve had in the city. The other is Lobos Creek in the Presidio.”

Pomerantz says many of the city’s creeks had less water available to them as the local population grew and built more homes and sewers. Water that normally would have gone into the creek system ended up in the sewer.

From a geological perspective, Pomerantz is interested in the larger story that the creek tells us about the topography of fresh water in the Bay Area.

“I think that the biggest story is that the creek is kind of an agglomeration, a sum total of a very large area of springs that come out of the bedrock hills in San Francisco. It’s a really important example of how the bedrock around here has springs from the hilltops which is an unusual phenomenon,” Pomerantz said.

Another reason San Franciscans should be interested in the creek’s story is that it sometimes makes the headlines. The most recent case was in December 2014, when a number of residents in low-lying areas in and around Cayuga Avenue near Balboa Park experienced raw sewage and water flooding their homes due to heavy rainfall.

A similar incident happened in 2004, and the city was forced to pay $1 million to residents in damage repair. In that episode, dozens of homes had their ground floors flooded with several feet of water, property was destroyed, and a dog was killed after being electrocuted by a downed power line. 

Gollihur is currently still fundraising for the project. He aims to begin shooting at the beginning of 2016. Ultimately, he looks forward to showing the completed film at film festivals in San Francisco, and environmental film festivals the world.

If you would like to know more about the film or contribute a donation, you can visit the project website at www.islaiscreekfilm.org.