January 28, 2014
Governor Jerry Brown
State Capitol, Suite 1173
Sacramento, CA 95814
Re: Drought & Implications for the Caltrans Willits Freeway Bypass
Dear Governor Brown:
You recently declared a drought emergency in the State of California. The week before, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors and the Willits City Council had both declared a state of emergency in our area. Our county and its residents are experiencing water rationing.
Even with severe restrictions, there is uncertainty, if we do not receive substantial amounts of rainfall to fill our reservoirs and recharge our groundwater aquifers, that we can make it through 2014 with water for basic human needs. Under these circumstances, it would be unconscionable to proceed with extremely water-intensive construction on the Willits Bypass project this year.
In 2013, Caltrans reports having used at least four million gallons from local wells for dust control and compaction on the project. Activities during the coming 2014 season would far exceed that amount, with continued earth-moving, dust control, compaction and adding cement mixing for construction of bridges and a one-mile long aqueduct. Those local wells and those millions of gallons of water are essential for the survival of 13,000 people living in the Willits area!
At the same time that the bypass project plans to use large amounts of water, it also plans to pave over nearly 90 acres of wetlands in our small valley. Those wetlands are critically important in recharging our aquifers, not to mention their role in flood control, cleansing water going into salmon-spawning creeks and supporting other wildlife. In your declaration about our water crisis, you also wisely mentioned the importance of protecting and restoring wetlands.
Even if or when the current drought eases, there is a way to substantially reduce the wetlands impact of the Willits Bypass project. Some of the damage has already been done, but at the northern terminus of this 6-mile bypass, only about one-tenth of the fill has been placed so far.
An I-5 style interchange is planned, covering 40-acres of wetlands almost 30 feet deep, even though the project is only 2 lanes connecting with an existing 2-lane highway and even though, north of Willits, traffic averages only 8,000 vehicles per day. By scaling back this over-sized interchange, some 30 acres of wetlands could be restored to their original high-functioning natural state, at the sensitive convergence of several streams feeding Outlet Creek into the Eel River. (See graphic above.)
I urge you to: a) Delay any further water-using construction activities on this project; and b) Before construction resumes, order Caltrans to redesign the northern interchange by scaling back to either a round-about or at-grade intersection (both already designed), thus minimizing further unnecessary filling and instead restoring these wetlands.
By the way, the project appears to already be considerably over budget, with just one example being the wetlands mitigation bids that came in three-times more than Caltrans’ estimate. Scaling back the northern interchange could reduce costs for construction as well as for massive, untested wetlands mitigation measures.
Finally, this common-sense revision in the plans would not only benefit wetlands and save State taxpayers money, it would also substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions during construction. It would be a tangible, major step toward the more sustainable transportation policy you have called for and that we all want.