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The Weight of The Water Board

A year ago this week, the California Highway Patrol conducted its mop-up of the five Willits tree sits that had been blocking portions of CalTrans’ Willits Bypass freeway construction. The April 2, 2013, operation began with an extraction of Amanda “Warbler” Senseman at 7am. In the late morning came the first instance in These United States of a cop shooting a tree sitter, when a CHP officer unloaded three bean bag pellets (“less-than-lethal ammunition”) on a difficult-to-corral tree platform dweller named Martin “Reign” Katz. The final tree sitter, Mark “Falcon” Herbert, was removed in a manlift from a stately oak on the western hill opposite The Warbler’s tree just after 5:30 p.m.

The CHP described this large mobilization’s personnel, equipment, and objectives in a 14-page document entitled “Tactical Plan – US 101 Willits Bypass Protests,” of which I am revealing some of the contents for the first time, here.

The mobilization involved 48 officers from throughout the North Coast, North Bay, and Sacramento, including 15 members of the Sacramento-based CHP SWAT team. The officers were armed with M4 carbine assault rifles and TSW4006 semi-automatic handguns, as well as so-called “less lethal weapons.” The CHP had deployed an aerial surveillance chopper for good measure, which the CHP refers to in the document under the category “Air ops.”

The on-the-ground opposition to the Willits Bypass – the most environmentally destructive and largest capital project in Mendocino County in at least two decades -- accomplished the impressive feat of sustaining five people simultaneously in tree sit platforms, and the direct action wing of that opposition also successfully delayed the start of freeway construction by several weeks, generating a fairly significant crisis for Caltrans. But the amount of officers and firepower on hand to deal with a mostly quite pacific group of around 50 protesters constitutes a scandal within the larger scandal that is the Willits Bypass.

Perhaps the CHP document’s most interesting revelation is that the CHP deployed two members of its undercover squad, the Investigative Services Unit (ISU), apparently posed as protesters to gather information on the Willits Bypass opposition that day. One section of the Tactical Operations Plan regarding officer “deployment” calls for “Two imbedded ISU personnel in protester crowd for entire operation to gather and share intelligence.”

It is a safe bet that the tree sit extraction was not the only time the CHP deployed undercover officers to keep tabs on the Bypass opposition, which had been stalling the construction and generating no small amount of unfavorable attention and publicity for Caltrans. The ISU’s main charge is to investigate auto theft, but it appears that they also veered into acting as an undercover political police force.

Almost exactly a year later, the Bypass seems like almost a sure bet to go forward. All of the trees have been cut; much of the soil for building the massive berm on which the asphalt would be laid is in place.

Yet, an altogether different sort of law enforcement action than that the CHP carried out might be about to curtail Big Orange’s newest construction season for an indefinite period.

The executive officer of the California North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (NCRWQCB) -- the alphabet soup agency charged with maintaining water quality on behalf of humans and other life, from Santa Rosa to the Oregon border -- claimed in a January letter that his agency would issue Caltrans a “Cease and Desist” order this month if Big Orange didn’t get its house in order vis-a-vis “mitigating” the damage the Bypass is causing.

“Caltrans must provide a final MMP [Mitigation and Monitoring Plan], acceptable to the Regional Water Board and approved by signature of the Regional Water Board Executive Officer, prior to resuming import of fill material into the Project limits,” reads the letter, signed by Matthias St. John, the Water Board executive officer.

On March 18, St. John followed up with another letter to Big Orange that enumerates three courses of action Caltrans can take to compensate for not having really started its mitigation program. The Bypass construction permit supposedly requires that the agency start the mitigations in April 2012.

One of those options is to “accelerate mitigation implementation,” which the letter acknowledges is “very unlikely due to Caltrans’ delay in establishing contractors for seed procurement and propagation.” The second, “A revised project (such as the northern interchange) that impacts fewer wetlands,” echoes what many in the group Save Our Little Lake Valley (SOLLV) have been calling for, a reduction in the project’s northern interchange that would spare thirty acres of wetlands from destruction.

The last option is “additional mitigation,” which St. John even goes so far as to say might entail purchasing more land. Caltrans already owns 2,000 acres in Little Lake Valley for its unwieldy and politically charged mitigation project, which I described in a May 2013 piece called “The Bypass Mitigation Charade.” The mitigations range from installation of native plant gardens to “creation” of new wetlands by excavating massive amounts of soil from already functioning wetlands.

The cumbersome process of adding new mitigations that the regulatory agencies approve would probably take a few years.

So, under the dubious pretense that the Water Board officer’s words are to be taken seriously, Caltrans’ contractors will not be able to resume hauling soil to the project site for an indefinite amount of time. Even if Caltrans downsizes the project in accordance with the Water Board’s edict, the project redesign would doubtless take several months of study.

Caltrans is not expressing any public doubt about the possibility of going forward with the project. In a report to the Willits City Council last week, Project Manager Mauricio Serrano claimed they were on track to resume hauling fill around April 15th, and that he is confident his agency’s staff will resolve their differences with the Water Board by that time.

Under Caltrans’ agreement with its contractors, FlatIron (a subsidiary of Hotchief, the world’s largest construction firm) and DeSilva Gates Corporation, Big Orange owes Big Fines for every day construction is delayed: $28,500 per day. In a bit of tortured logic, this stipulation is one of the rationales the project’s proponents hoist up when claiming it is in the best interests of taxpayers for this massive taxpayer-financed highway boondoggle to move forward without delay. The Water Board’s staff are well aware of the flak they might catch for ordering delays that entail such stiff penalties for another state agency.

Meanwhile, the Board of Supervisors in the environmentally-friendly County of Mendocino [sic] were collectively in favor, at their meeting last Tuesday, of nearly 900,000 cubic yards of soil being excavated from an abandoned mill site to carry out the largest wetlands destruction in northern California in more than fifty years. Specifically, the Board voted 4-1 to grant a “negative declaration” allowing a permit for the extraction of fill from Mendocino Forest Products (i.e., Mendocino Redwood Company) land north of Willits.

The question underpinning the agenda item before the Board was whether it is best to dump fill on these wetlands from a defunct mill site or to extract the same amount of soil from Oil Well Hill: the first spot on the north end of Little Lake Valley that rises above the “bog fog” on a given day, being a few miles further north and higher in elevation.

The only supervisor who voted against the permit was Dan Hamburg, who referred to the Water Board’s March 18th letter in articulating his opposition to granting the Mendocino Forest Products permit.

“Last I checked, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board still throws a little weight around here on the North Coast,” Hamburg said.

He is certainly correct, although it remains to be seen if they will stick to their word and stand up, finally, to Caltrans.

One Comment

  1. Phil Frisbie, Jr. April 3, 2014

    Work on structures by Flatiron will resume in a couple of weeks; that work is not affected by the water board restrictions on bringing fill into the project.

    Caltrans has looked at the option of reducing the footprint of the northern interchange, but at this late date it would add millions to the cost for very little reduction in impacts to wetlands. The footprint of the interchange is only about 25 acres, and of that only about 12 acres is seasonal wetlands, all of which have already been impacted.

    It will not take years to increase the mitigation because Caltrans has already increased the mitigation since we received a conditional permit/authorization from the water board in 2010. We are creating and enhancing an additional 25 acres of wetlands as well as removing another fish barrier from Ryan Creek.

    Also, the mitigation HAS already started. Last fall Caltrans issued a change order for the bypass project to begin fence work that the Corps of Engineers and the water board required. We are also going to issue another change order for further fencing and to develop a water source for grazing cattle and to water plants until they are established.

    Finally, a contract to gather native seeds and begin to grow 800,000 plants will be awarded this summer. The remaining mitigation work will be awarded as four smaller contacts beginning early 2015.

    Phil at Caltrans

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