Caltrans Bypass – Update (Oct. 30 ’14) - by Madge Strong
Believe it or not, it STILL isn’t over! The lawsuit challenging County approval of the Mendocino Forest Product site to provide fill for the huge northern interchange lost; the Court ruled to allow fill to proceed. On Sept. 23rd, Native American and local protestors peacefully blocked the dump trucks. (There were no arrests.) As it turned out, that was to be the last day of filling for this season. The damage done so far at this site, however, is still reversible! Meanwhile, Caltrans was required by their agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers to come up with “significant” reductions in wetland impact by Oct. 1st, in part to compensate for the major delays in mitigating those impacts. Citizens have been kept out of the loop on the backroom dealings, but it appears that Caltrans’ proposal is woefully inadequate, reducing impact by only 3-4 acres of wetlands instead of the approximately 20 acres that could be saved by eliminating the unnecessary northern interchange. The scene of destruction at the southern interchange – leveling trees, hills and streams and creating massive walls of riprap - is a testament to the ethos of highway-building. Can’t we avoid a similar mess at the northern end? Perhaps most egregious, all of the “authorities” have failed to protect Native American sites that are abundant in both the bypass footprint and mitigation areas. In a blatant conflict of interest, Caltrans itself is in charge of implementing federal laws to protect these resources! Native American groups and citizen activists have planned a rally at noon on Tues. Nov. 18th, at Corps of Engineers’ headquarters in San Francisco. To join carpools to attend this gathering, contact XXX. For latest news, check www.savelittlelakevalley.org.
Caltrans Bypass – Update (Aug. 30 ’14) - by Madge Strong
The roller-coaster of the Bypass saga continues… In late June the Army Corps of Engineers suspended Caltrans’ permit due to serious violations and delays. Three weeks later, after an “intervention” by our Congressman Jared Huffman and his predecessor Mike Thompson, the Corps reinstated the permit, with some vague promises from Caltrans to reduce impacts and speed up mitigation efforts. Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbee said the temporary suspension could cause a one-year delay on the project. Meanwhile, the Willits Environmental Center and Keep the Code had filed a lawsuit challenging the County’s approval of excavating the old Apache Mill site (now Mendocino Forest Products) for 900,000 cu. yds. of fill to build the massive northern interchange. On Aug. 20th, the court granted a temporary restraining order, with a hearing on a potential injunction scheduled for Sept. 8th. Frisbee again claimed this could cause a one-year delay. Although promising to consider ways to reduce the wetlands impacts, Caltrans continues to summarily reject the idea of using the already-planned round-about as the northern connection. That simple change order could save time (avoiding that claimed one-year delay), taxpayers’ money, wetlands, and cultural resources. For latest news, check www.savelittlelakevalley.org.
Caltrans Bypass – Update (June 28 ’14) - by Madge Strong
The saga of the Bypass continues on a roller-coaster of ups and downs! In mid-March the Water Board had barred importing fill to the wetlands until Caltrans could come up with compensation for 2- to 4-years delay in implementing promised mitigation. (The restriction did not apply to moving fill from the southern interchange excavation to the north, which proceeded during May and June with night-time trucking down Main Street.) On June 13th, the Water Board staff ruled that Caltrans had offered sufficient compensation, and they approved the just-issued revised Mitigation and Monitoring Plan (MMP). SOLLV and other citizens’ groups immediately rebutted the ruling in testimony at the Water Board’s June 19th meeting and in letters to the resource agencies and Congressman Jared Huffman. Huffman had an earlier exchange of correspondence asking Caltrans to specify why they rejected the option of modifying the northern interchange design. Caltrans’ claims were, again, thoroughly debunked. Meanwhile, SOLLV had a moving gathering of about 100 local citizens and Native American tribal leaders at the northern wetlands on June 8th. Pomo Indian tribes have been outraged at Caltrans’ flagrant violations of ancestral sites, and they called for a miracle to protect both the natural and cultural resources of the valley. Amazingly, miracles came! On June 20th, the Army Corps of Engineers suspended Caltrans’ permit due to serious, ongoing violations, including delays in mitigation and lack of assured funding. That suspension bars any work in “U.S. waters”, which includes wetlands, but allows other work on the bypass to continue. Another miracle was the decision of the American Indian Movement (AIM) to culminate their 500-mile Spirit Run in Willits on June 26th, highlighting the need to protect ancestral sites and the unanimous resolutions of all three regional tribes calling for downsizing the northern interchange. What will happen next? There is such an obvious solution: the simple design modification using the roundabout as the northern terminus of the bypass avoids an estimated 25-30 acres of fill and destruction of both wetlands and cultural sites. At the same time, it could reduce the need for so-called “wetland creation areas,” with their own destruction, expense, and uncertainty of success. Check SOLLV’s website www.savelittlelakevalley.org for the latest news.
Caltrans Bypass – Update (Apr. 25 ’14) - by Madge Strong
The next season of Bypass construction is expected to resume any day now. While citizens groups continue efforts to scale back the huge northern interchange, the outcome is unclear at press time. Using the already-designed round-about to connect the 2-lane bypass to the existing highway north of Willits seems to make a lot of sense: saving money, wetlands, water, and reducing construction time and disruption. After attending several board and staff meetings, activists were encouraged when the Regional Water Quality Control Board on Mar. 18 put the option of a design change at the northern interchange “on the table” as one way that Caltrans could compensate for the project’s delayed mitigation of impacts on wetlands and waterways. An approved plan is required before more fill can be imported into the project area. About one million cubic yards of fill are needed to raise the northern interchange area by 20 to 30 feet, activating the wickdrains and “paving the way” for the freeway. Moving that much fill involves constant trucking, 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, for six months. Sources of the fill may include further excavation at the southern interchange, the Mendocino Forest Products (old Apache Mill) site, and/or Oil Well Hill. The Board of Supervisors on Mar. 25th approved excavation of the MFP site, despite objections raised at the hearing. On April 25, two groups filed suit against the County, claiming that approval was improper. Meanwhile, concerned citizens have appealed to elected officials, resource agencies, and Caltrans to consider the benefits and feasibility of the proposed design change. Recently the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians also strongly advocated for the reduced northern interchange as a way to reduce impacts on cultural resources. Caltrans, however, claims the change “would not be appropriate” based on their questionable traffic projections and dream of a future 4-lane project. Will politicians intervene before the next truck caravans roll through town, gouge hills, and forever bury acres of wetlands and Native American cultural sites? Will protestors again resort to non-violent actions to try to stave off this unnecessary destruction of our valley? Check SOLLV’s website www.savelittlelakevalley.org for the latest news.
CALTRANS TO RESTRIPE MAIN STREET
Caltrans plans to refinish and restripe the “bottleneck” – the section of Main Street north-bound as it approaches Highway 20 – beginning in early May for about one month. The work will proceed primarily at night. Caltrans estimates that the restriping will reduce congestion by about 10%, as some vehicles directly access the left-turn lane to Highway 20, and others may turn right into the Safeway parking lot before the intersection. Coordination between this project and the likely use of Main St. for trucking of fill from the southern interchange to the north has not yet been determined.
Caltrans Bypass – Update (Feb. 21 ’14) - by Madge Strong
While the bypass construction is idled for winter, many groups have been actively urging a design change to reduce the impacts and costs of the project. The current drought has added urgency to the concern that the construction uses large amounts of water (6 million gallons just during 2013) while destroying valley wetlands that recharge our aquifer. (Wetlands are also vital in helping control floods and providing unique wildlife habitats.) Proponents of scaling back the northern interchange point out that a huge I-5 style interchange is not needed to connect the two-lane bypass to the existing two-lane 101 highway north of Willits. A common sense modification would: * Avoid paving over about 30 acres of wetlands; * Reduce the need for extracting, trucking, and compacting 900,000 cubic yards of additional fill; * Reduce the extent, disruption and uncertainty of the required mitigation plans; * Potentially save tens of millions of taxpayers funds; and * More than adequately handle projected traffic. Caltrans has already designed an at-grade intersection or round-about. It’s critical to make this change before the trucks and heavy machinery start rolling again sometime between April 1st and May 1st. Activists have been lobbying all decision-makers, including the Governor, US Army Corps of Engineers (ACE), Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB), Congressman Jared Huffman, and Caltrans itself. On Jan. 15th RWQCB (Water Board) staff issued a warning letter to Caltrans about the violations of their permit conditions, including major delays on the required mitigation program. On Jan. 30th, about 20 Willits residents carpooled to Santa Rosa to urge the Board to issue a cease & desist order, with the goal of impelling Caltrans to reduce the impacts. Another contingent is planned for the next Water Board meeting on March 13th. On Feb. 8th Save Our Little Lake Valley (SOLLV) held a gathering to mark the first anniversary of Warbler’s tree-sit, to honor and regroup for the efforts to reduce the impacts, and to send healing for the damage that has already been done. Nearly 100 people were led in a ceremony by the Round Valley Feather Dancers. Efforts are underway to meet with officials in the Governor’s office, the new California State Transportation Agency, and Caltrans, particularly in light of the recent independent report (Smart State Transportation Initiative) that called for major changes in Caltrans’ conduct and misplaced priorities. On Mar. 15th, people from Willits will join a statewide anti-fracking rally in Sacramento, building alliances and pointing out how this project similarly abuses water resources. Another group trip to Sacramento is likely in the near future to lobby for a change on the bypass. For latest news on these issues and suggestions for letter-writing and other participation, go to www.savelittlelakevalley.org.
Caltrans Bypass – Update Jan. 2014
The bypass construction has been mostly dormant for winter. During this hiatus, the contractor is seeking to secure a site from which to extract 900,000 cubic yards of additional fill to place up to 30-feet deep on the 40-acre northern interchange. Proponents of a smaller bypass project, meanwhile, are working to convince decision-makers there would be no need for this massive fill operation if the northern terminus of the 2-lane bypass simply used the already-designed at-grade roundabout to connect to the existing highway. The borrow site anticipated in the bypass EIR is Oil Well Hill, a wooded slope adjoining the east side of Highway 101 about __ miles north of the planned interchange. An alternative preferred by the contractor is the old Apache Mill site owned by Mendocino Forest Products (MFP), only __ miles from the construction site. The contractor briefly began using the MFP last Fall under a rushed, illegal County permit, without required notice to resource agencies or divulging any information about potential contaminants in the fill dirt. They are now trying to obtain a permit legally. To hedge their bets, however, Caltrans may be planning to clear-cut Oil Well Hill in January (before bird nesting season) just in case it’s needed when earth-moving is scheduled to resume in Spring. Why can’t these “powers that be” consider a practical solution (downsizing the northern interchange) that avoids further fill and reduces environmental impacts and costs? In late December Judge Jeffrey White finally issued his ruling in the lawsuit against the project filed by several environmental groups in May 2012. He concluded that Caltrans and the Army Corps of Engineers acted within their discretionary authority (whether or not their decisions were the best choice). Not covered by that lawsuit is the question of whether the wetland mitigation required for the project can be accomplished. (Bids for the initial construction of the mitigation plan came in $26 million over Caltrans’ estimate.) Given the failure of Caltrans, politicians, and now the federal court to heed concerns and suggested solutions raised over the years, it is understandable that some people of conscience have felt moved to non-violent civil disobedience as a last recourse. Will Parrish, who spent 12 days in a wick-drain installer trying to protect the wetlands last June, will be standing trial in Ukiah beginning Jan. 27th. Charges are still pending against at least 20 others. For latest news on these issues, go to www.savelittlelakevalley.org.