The Center for Biological Diversity, Willits Environmental Center, Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) filed a motion in federal court on Friday seeking a preliminary injunction to halt imminent construction of the Willits Bypass, a proposed four-lane freeway to be built around the community of Willits in Mendocino County. Despite a pending lawsuit challenging the permits and approvals for the controversial project, which would destroy significant wetlands and habitat for endangered plants, as well as degrade salmon-bearing streams, the California Department of Transportation has awarded a construction contract that could result in the cutting down of mature oak forests and riparian vegetation as early as October.
“The Willits Bypass would be a disaster for local wetlands, oak forests and the wildlife that depend on them,” said Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Caltrans has made significant changes to this project without fully evaluating the impacts of bulldozing a freeway through precious wetlands and endangered species’ habitats.”
“The Willits Bypass project is an egregious example of how Caltrans is totally out of touch with the needs of local communities and ecosystems on the North Coast,” said Gary Graham Hughes of EPIC. “We are asking the federal court to halt this project before irreparable damage is done to oak forests and critical aquatic habitats in the headwaters of the Eel River.”
Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration say they are pursuing the bypass on Highway 101 around Willits to ease traffic congestion. The agencies insist on a four-lane freeway and have refused to consider or analyze equally effective two-lane alternatives or in-town solutions. The currently planned project would be a 6-mile, four-lane bypass including several bridges over creeks and roads, a mile-long viaduct spanning the floodplain, and two interchanges.
Construction would damage wildlife habitat and biological resources in Little Lake Valley, including nearly 100 acres of wetlands, and it would require the largest wetlands fill permit in Northern California in the past 50 years. It would also affect stream and riparian habitat for Chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout in three streams converging into Outlet Creek, harm the rare plant Baker’s meadowfoam and destroy increasingly scarce oak woodlands.
A lawsuit was filed against Caltrans, the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in May 2012 for violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and Clean Water Act. The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring the agencies to prepare a supplemental “environmental impact statement” that considers two-lane alternatives and addresses substantial design changes and new information about traffic volumes and environmental impacts. In August, the California Farm Bureau Federation filed a motion to intervene on behalf of the environmental plaintiffs, providing supporting arguments that Caltrans and the Army Corps of Engineers have violated environmental law in approving permits for this project. Since a 2006 environmental review, Caltrans has made significant changes and ongoing revisions to the project that will cause new environmental impacts, yet it has failed to supplement the environmental review. Project changes will destroy additional wetlands, oak woodlands and riparian habitat; increase habitat loss for the rare Baker’s meadowfoam; further degrade salmon habitat; and add significant new impacts to agricultural lands.
For more than half a century, Caltrans has promoted turning Highway 101 into a four-lane freeway from San Diego to the Oregon border, with a four-lane freeway bypass around Willits. Caltrans first discussed potential bypass designs and routes through Willits in 1988, but by 1995 had unilaterally discarded all non-freeway or two-lane alternatives.
The California Transportation Commission, the state funding authority, has repeatedly refused to fund a four-lane freeway, so Caltrans proposes to proceed in “phases,” grading for four lanes and constructing two lanes with available funds, then allegedly constructing two additional lanes when additional funding becomes available, a dubious prospect. Yet Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration did notdraft a supplemental “environmental impact statement” to examine impacts of this changed design or consider two-lane alternatives.
A 1998 Caltrans study found that 70 percent to 80 percent of traffic causing congestion in downtown Willits was local, and Caltrans internally conceded that the volume of traffic projected to use the bypass was not enough to warrant a four-lane freeway. Agency data showed the volume of traffic that would use the bypass did not increase from 1992 to 2005. New information shows that actual traffic volumes are below what the agencies projected when they determined that only a four-lane freeway will provide the desired level of service, and that a two-lane bypass will provide a better level of service than projected.
Phase I of the project would fill more than 86 acres of wetlands and federal-jurisdiction waters. Caltrans purchased approximately 2,000 acres of ranchland in Little Lake Valley to supposedly mitigate for loss of wetlands, but this approach makes little sense because functional wetlands already existed on the properties and Caltrans has no ability to “create” new wetlands there. To obtain the required wetlands fill permit under the Clean Water Act, the state and federal agencies submitted a significantly deficient “mitigation and monitoring plan” to the Army Corps to “enhance” wetlands. This plan itself alters existing wetlands and causes significant new impacts to wetlands, endangered species and grazing lands, as well as making design changes that were not analyzed or disclosed in the 2006 environmental review. The Corps improperly issued the permit in February 2012.