By Lucy Allen
The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) is proposing to upgrade four existing bridges along the Avenue of the Giants, a world-famous scenic drive along old Highway 101, through the ancient redwood groves of Redwood State Park.
Take Action: Tell Caltrans that it needs to adequately study impacts, and adequately inform the public, before they move forward with the project.
Caltrans released an Initial Study with Proposed Mitigated Negative Declaration for the “Avenue of the Giants – Four Bridges Project” over the holidays, comments are due on Monday, February 2. (A “Mitigated Negative Declaration” is a CEQA document that essentially says that environmental impacts will be mitigated below significant levels, and therefore that further study of the project impacts is unnecessary.) As proposed, this project would involve upgrades to bridge and guard railings and repaving of the existing roadway on each side of four bridges on Avenue of the Giants/Route 254, and all of this work would occur within and around ancient redwoods and important salmon habitat. Yet, despite the precious resources potentially threatened by this project, Caltrans is pushing the project through without adequately analyzing or disclosing to the public the impacts of the project.
* Impacts to redwoods need to be fully analyzed, and all conclusions need to be fully explained to the public, before work begins in and around their roots.
* Adequate, and fully explained, measures to avoid spills or other stream disturbances need to be developed before Caltrans begins working over streams with important fish habitat.
* Caltrans needs to recirculate the Initial Study with Proposed Mitigated Negative Declaration with all underlying studies and documents in order to be transparent with the public about the project and its potential impacts to public resources, and in order to comply with CEQA which requires that the public be provided this information for comment.
Impacts to Trees
Caltrans maintains that the project area contains 46 coastal redwood trees. While the Initial Study and Proposed Mitigated Negative Declaration notes that “[i]t is difficult to develop a mitigation strategy that adequately offsets a project’s impacts to old growth redwood trees, due to their size and age,” it nevertheless concludes that the study will have “less than significant” impacts on these trees. The impacts on each tree in the area were rated on a 0-6 scale corresponding with the magnitude of impacts of the projects on the tree: eleven trees were rated “0” (no effect); fourteen were rated “1” (effect of root zone disturbance is extremely minor with no decline in foliage density or tree health); and twenty-two were rated “2” (effect of root zone disturbance is very slight with no decline in foliage density or tree health). Exactly how this rating system was developed, or how the trees were rated, however, was not disclosed. For trees rated “2,” for instance, the Initial Study indicates that there may be project activities closer than 10 feet from the base of these trees. Caltrans needs to explain why it believes that this work occurring so close to the trees would cause only “very slight” root zone disturbance.
Various avoidance, minimization, and mitigation measures are proposed to reduce impacts to redwoods. Many, however, contain inadequate descriptions regarding how they will be carried out. For example, one such measure is “no roots greater than two inches in diameter will be cut,” however the Initial Study does not describe how work crews will achieve this.
In short, Caltrans has not demonstrated that it takes seriously the great responsibility of working near our precious ancient redwoods, and that it deserves our trust when they say that the project will leave these trees unharmed.
Impacts on Fish
The bridges at issue span Ohman Creek, Elk Creek, Bridge Creek and Bear Creek, all four of which provide habitat for Chinook and Coho salmon, among other aquatic creatures. As with its analysis of impacts on redwoods, Caltrans concludes that the impacts of the project on fish will be “less than significant,” but it provides little evidence to support this conclusion.
Furthermore, the document acknowledges that unexpected impacts to fish can occur from “unintended spills, increased sedimentation, and alteration of pH.”
As we have unfortunately learned from the recent collapse of the overpass at Willits Bypass, which spilled wet concrete into a nearby stream, raising the pH of the stream to a level that can kill fish immediately, unintended events can have huge impacts. But the “avoidance, minimization, and/or mitigation measures” provided in the Initial Study for the Four Bridges Project for potential impacts to anadromous fish are vague and inadequate. Before starting work above and around these streams, Caltrans should provide additional assurances that spills and other disturbances of the creeks in the project area will be prevented, and it should develop and circulate for public review a site-specific emergency response plan for spills or other disturbances of the streams.
CEQA requires that all documents referenced in a proposed mitigated negative declaration be made available to the public. (See Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 21092; CEQA Guidelines § 15072). In this Mitigated Negative Declaration, however, many conclusions rely entirely on referenced documents and surveys, which were not made publicly available, in clear violation of CEQA.
While ultimately it may be that Caltrans believes it has put adequate measures in place to reduce environmental impacts of this project to acceptable levels, it needs to prove this to the public by publicly releasing all underlying documents so that the public – as a participant in the process for informed decision-making – can review and comment on all the information.
This must be done before Caltrans can act to decide this project.