The Caltrans Bypass: An Un-Mitigated $50,000,000 Disaster…


From Chris Hardaker

The Caltrans-Willits Bypass Mitigation projects amount to the most expensive tally that Caltrans has ever spent on mitigation – defined as compensating for and/or repairing the destruction incurred during the project, including environmental and cultural resources (archaeology).  $50,000,000 mitigation dollars are being spent on the overblown northern intersection area. This is the price tag for terra-forming non-wetlands into wetlands, to compensate for the destruction of healthy wetlands during the construction of the new freeway.

This kind of terra-forming has never been tried before. That makes this ‘most expensive mitigation project’ a $50,000,000 ‘experimental mitigation project.’ No guarantees it will work. It could have all been avoided if CalTrans chose to build a smaller northern intersection, at least until their second stage of construction, at some nebulous and unscheduled point in the future. But Caltrans insisted. And it was all approved by the Mendocino County and Willits City Councils.

Caltrans has destroyed X-acres of wetlands for the bypass. They promised to offset the destruction by creating new wetlands from non-wetland parcels. They knew exactly how this was going to be divided up for the last decade. The Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs) are in the library. In their minds, it is about evening the score. Imagine a map of the right of way, and then imagine the parcels outside of the right of way. Let’s say there are red zones which are not wetlands. And grey zones stand for existing wetlands. The new wetlands will be terra-formed from the red zones. The trick is to create and replace the same amount of wetlands acreage destroyed by the monster intersection.

They have now destroyed the wetlands. Now the $50,000,000 mitigation experiment goes into action. Now is the time of Do Or Die for the biologists who promised us a piece of cake, to terra-form wetlands out of non-wetlands. It was all worked out on paper. They knew the parcels in the red zones that would serve to replace the ruined wetlands. They knew exactly where they were going to add grey boxes onto the non-wetland red zones on the map.

Two years ago,  confidence among the project biologists was riding high.  In May 2013, Biologist Chris Collison said with satisfaction that, “the wetlands are actually going to be improved.”

Le Grande Experiment.

“The bypass is a model of environmentally sensitive construction.

“Caltrans believes that the agency has done an outstanding job creating a project that is environmentally sensitive.” Biologist Chris Collison says, “I’m quite proud of the work we’re doing for the salmon.” He says with satisfaction that the “wetlands are actually going to be improved.” Caltrans, he argues, is reducing invasive species, promoting the growth of native species, and helping sensitive species to survive in the area around the bypass.

“To offset impact,” he says, “we worked on ways to help species survive…. So that [this species] can’t wink out, [Caltrans] purchased from willing sellers eight acres of habitat [for the grass], which is a 25-to-1 mitigation. Forever, now, no one can use herbicide on that area. […] We now control how to use those lands for the health and well being of that species. Before we bought the land, people didn’t even know [the grasses] were there.” Now he says the land around the bypass has a conservation easement.

Collison describes an attempt by the agency to protect the land around the bypass as if the area were a park. He says the agency is doing all this by “buying lands and controlling what is going on on them, like keeping cattle from depositing waste in streams”; restoring the natural gradients of streams so fish can access “miles” of former habitat; and providing a long term endowment of $5 million to “run the system” — management, policing, working with the ranchers, etc.”

That was then. Now it’s FUBAR. A $50,000,000 experiment gone awry. It could have been worse. A year after Collison’s assurances, 70+ acres of Little Lake was being threatened with a brand new five-year industrial herbicide spraying program. That proposal was stopped in its tracks by concerned citizens. Where was Team Collison? How did it react to this ecological betrayal?  Not a word. Not a wimper. But this $50,000,000 experiment is a complex deal. There are many elements that have to work together as planned in order to complete the contract. If one breaks down, it can have consequences down the line.

The current break down has had immediate and terrible consequences. The red, non-wetland zones scheduled for wetland makeovers contained a lot more archaeology than Caltrans and archaeologists imagined. When the Biologist was strutting his stuff, everyone on the CalTrans team imagined there were just three or four small and very insignificant sites. Now the number is approaching fifty, and that’s just in the vicinity of the northern intersection area.

With the increased archaeology, the biologists had to look elsewhere for non-wetland acreage to substitute. It would be tough because they thought everything had been worked out years ago. On the map, they knew that a significant amount of the red zones had to be marked in grey, as aspiring wetlands. However, those red zones were shrinking fast because archaeology began to turn up all over the place.

Had CalTrans known beforehand of the archaeological richness of the area, and had the archaeologists actually done their jobs, perhaps they would have bought other tracts of land that were not full of potentially 10,000 years worth of archaeology. Now it is too late. The land is already bought. If Caltrans wants to use the red zones like they wanted to, they will first have to mitigate a bonanza of archeology sites, and there would probably be archaeology work for years; nobody knows the true depth of some of the larger sites.

Instead, CalTrans resorted to shear ecological treachery. They changed the definition of Wetlands, which is now determined by water about 12” below the surface. If you have to dig further for water, then the land “is not wetlands.” The treachery is that they made all these estimations during a period of severe drought, when one expects a lowered water table. So in an instant, what had been grey-zoned wetlands were transformed into red zones on paper, and that’s all that mattered. As a result, perfectly fine wetlands became non-wetlands at the stroke of a pen. And now, Caltrans is destroying the perfectly fine wetlands and then will attempt to make them into wetlands again, maybe. Remember, the whole terra-forming idea is experimental.

In any other average rainfall year, and for the last century, these acres were considered as wetlands. A no brainer. But Caltrans’ environmental lawyers, maybe even Biologist Chris Collison, came up with a doozy — take advantage of the drought, lower the water table regulations, and walk away with guaranteed bonuses.

In short, Caltrans gets to destroy fully functioning wetlands as if they are not wetlands in order to experimentally try to remake them into wetlands so they can add those compliance-ready gray squares inside the new red zones on their map. Treachery has become part of the $50,000,000 experiment; you can find it under Saps, in the index.

It’s only Willits. It’s only the local Pomo. Really? Not really.

It is an indictment against Mendocino County and State inertia, and against the fawning yes-men on the city council, and against CalTrans’ largest and most-unnecessary mitigation project, ever. It is an indictment against all officials involved who passed the buck or cowered in the face of the 15th largest economy in the world. It is an indictment against state environmental and water regulatory agencies who clearly don’t have the foggiest, don’t give a damn, or don’t have an interest in bucking the machine — the power of the pension seems absolute.

It is also an indictment against state archaeological agencies (including the Mendocino county archaeological commission), who were given the mission 40 years ago to prevent archaeological massacres like the one going on right now at Little Lake. In those days we archaeologists considered ourselves as anthropologists first. Today, it’s a business and we have become whores. So we find ourselves salvaging what archaeology we can while dodging the big machines that are raping and pillaging acres of natural wetlands in order to first destroy them, and then turn them into manufactured terra-formed wetlands in their place — maybe.

And so far, not a single word from The Biologist. I guess he was just a public relations prop, a front man. If he is a professional, his office will be in the same brothel housing the archaeologists.


Incredible how “momentum” can rule, whether in wars that escalate beyond the imaginings of the humans who dabble in their beginnings, or in cities that grow skywards, or in the viral spread of communication technologies that turn on the societies that use them and destroy the “language” core of communication itself. The story of the Freeway That Would in this account reads exactly like “momentum” eating itself! Turning back clocks happens only in the weird world of “daylight savings time”, but sadly not in Little Lake Valley.

The practical effect of what has been described here is that the northern residual wetlands (i.e., winter lake) has been strip-mined and trucked to the upper section of the valley, adjoined East Side Rd. Trucks go by at the rate of one per minute with the top-soil of wetlands that are thus being destroyed, in order to save-not ‘them’-but the appearance of fulfilling what was only a pretext to mitigation, so as to justify unnecessary wholesale destruction of the last undisturbed alluvial valley in California. At times, this same top-soil from the northern wetlands is returned there, for fill serving the wetlands-destroying road base. With ownership of some 2,400 acres of valley land, a quarter of Little Lake Valley, we can expect the peace and stability it has provided for millennia to have ended at taxpayer expense, and representational betrayal.