Private Creek Maintenance

Living with Your Creek
If your property has a creek or a waterway flowing through it, it is your responsibility to maintain it. Typically private property extends to the center of the creek and not just to the fence line. These privately owned creeks are an important part of our county’s drainage system and are regulated by County ordinance, but they are not maintained by the County.

When the creek area is not properly maintained, the resulting obstructions can lead to increased flooding, changes in the course of the creek, and increased erosion. Proper creek care includes removing blockages (whether natural or man-made) that could cause flooding, keeping banks vegetated to prevent erosion, preventing pollutants from entering waterways, and removing trash to help maintain a healthy watershed. It is imperative that the work be conducted in such a manner that it will not adversely affect the natural habitat of vegetation and wildlife that share the creek with us, and in a way that will preserve the beauty of our creeks.

As a property owner, you are legally responsible for damages to adjacent property that result from neglect or unpermitted activities on your property. You are also responsible for the actions of your gardeners, landscapers, maintenance workers and contractors. It is against the law to block drainages within the County and illegal to cause discharges of pollutants to our creeks and waterways.

If your property is located in an unincorporated area of the county and you are unsure of your responsibility regarding the maintenance of a particular drainage facility on or near your property, call the County Public Works Department at (925) 313-7000.  If your property is located within the city limits, please call your city Public Works or Engineering Department.

Living with Creeks Brochure (PDF)

Guidelines for Private Creek Maintenance
The Public Works Department recommends the following guidelines be followed when maintaining the creek on your property to protect your property and that of your neighbors:

  1. Remove all debris and foreign objects.  These may include items such as bottles and cans, broken concrete, fallen fences, shopping carts, appliances, or any man-made object.  It also includes wood and fallen trees or tree limbs.  This is the property owner’s responsibility even if the object washed down from upstream.  It is recommended that all stored material in your backyard be placed a minimum of 10 feet away from the top of bank to avoid materials washing into the creek during heavy storms.  Sheds and minor structures should be anchored to the ground if closer than 10 feet from the top of bank.
  2. Remove vegetation except low ground cover from the creek banks up to the top of the bank (flood line) including shrubs, tules, pampas grass, cattails, and bamboo. Leave all root systems in place. Remove hanging vines that may create an obstruction to the natural flow of water in the creek. If you have berry vines, trim these back to the bank.
  3. Remove from the creek banks up to the top of the bank (flood line) any tree limbs which hang within two feet of the top of the bank.  Any single tree of 2-inch diameter or greater which is living and not leaning toward the creek may remain. Some trees are protected by State laws. A Contra Costa County tree permit may be required. Contact the County’s Engineering Services staff at (925) 313-2000 or visit their website for more information on which trees are protected. If there are trees growing in clusters, trees with multiple trunks, or trees within the stream channel that may cause an obstruction to the flow of water, do not remove them until you contact the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for direction.
  4. Do not clear-cut the creek slopes. Leave ground cover such as low grasses or vines. If you are directed to cut a tree, cut it at the ground level, but leave the roots in the ground.
  5. If you have existing slope stabilization measures such as rip-rap (rock or concrete), a retaining wall, or fabric mesh covering, keep these measures in good condition.  If these measures require any repair or if you want to install a measure to stabilize your slope, you must first contact the County to get a drainage or grading permit. 
  6. If any work is done to alter the creek such as widening, filling, or dredging, then permits from the County, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the State Regional Water Quality Control Board, and the US Army Corps of Engineers will be required.

These diagrams (PDF) illustrate the above guidelines. If you have questions, you may call the Contra Costa County Public Works Department Maintenance Division (925) 313-7000.

FAQ for Property Owners Near Creeks (PDF)

Public Nuisance
Allowing or maintaining obstructions in a creek is a public nuisance under both local and state law. Both the California Civil Code (section 3479) and the California Penal Codes (section 370) declare that anything which unlawfully obstructs the free passage of any river, stream, or canal is a public nuisance. The Contra Costa County Ordinance Title 10, Chapter 1010-2, also states that “the unregulated obstruction, modification and use of watercourses creates conditions tending to reduce the value of private property, to promote blight and deterioration of property, to cause flooding and drainage losses, and to be injurious to the public health, safety and general welfare.”

Creek Permits & Resources

Contra Costa County requires you to obtain a Drainage or Flood Control permit if you plan to modify the flow of water, or work in, or build near, a creek or channel in the unincorporated areas of the County.

Please call the County Public Works Department, (925) 313-2000, to inquire about your specific project before beginning any work in or near a creek.

Other local, regional, State and Federal permits may also be required which may be obtained by using the Joint Aquatic Resource Permit Application (JARPA). This single application allows you to apply to multiple permitting agencies with one form, use the link and look for the JARPA.

Contra Costa County Ordinance Code - see Title 10, Section 1010 for Drainage; Section 1014 for Stormwater Management and Control; and Section 914.14 for Creek Structure Setback requirements.

Contra Costa County Public Works Maintenance - (925) 313-7000
For assistance with road or drainage concerns in the unincorporated area of the County.

Contra Costa County Clean Water Program - (800) NO DUMPING (663-8674)
To report illegal dumping in waterways.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife - (707) 428-2002 - Bay Delta Region

San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board - (510) 622-2300

Army Corps of Engineers, San Francisco District - (415) 977-8464

The Streamside Management Program for Landowners (SMPL) offered by the CA Urban Streams Partnership can provide free advice about creek care, restoration, and maintenance for Contra Costa County Residents.  Please see the brochure SMPL brochure (PDF).  You may contact them by email.

Funding for this service is provided by the Contra Costa County Flood Control and Water Conservation District.