Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

Judge forces reassessmentof hwy. work's salmon impact

In a lawsuit settlement reached last week, Caltrans has agreed to reassess the impacts a highway widening and straightening project on highways 199 and 197 could have on federally protected coho salmon in the Smith River.

The $26 million project was scheduled to break ground this summer, but a federal judge halted construction in May in response to a lawsuit filed by environmental groups that successfully argued that Caltrans and the National Marine Fisheries Service failed to fulfill their responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act.

"The important thing for Caltrans to know is that the environmental laws are on the books for a reason," said Don Gillespie, president of Friends of Del Norte, which is one of the plaintiffs along with the Environmental Protection Information Center, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Gasquet resident Ted Souza, who is also an FDN member. "Caltrans and the NMFS should have pursued a scientific study to start this process rather than paylip service to written environmental law."

Southern Oregon and Northern California Coast (SONCC) coho salmon are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and the Smith River has a "core" population of coho capable of seeding dependent populations in nearby streams, according to the National Marine Fisheries' SONCC Coho Recovery Plan.

The court order dismisses the environmental groups' lawsuit without prejudice pending a new biological assessment and essential fish habitat assessment by Caltrans and NMFS. If the environmental groups are not satisfied with the new assessment, they could re-file or appeal the lawsuit.

The 197/199 Safe STAA Access Project would straighten and widen seven tight spots on the highways, including replacing an aging, narrow bridge with an awkward approach over the Middle Fork Smith on 199. The project would make the two highways open to longer trucks as defined by the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982, which set a federal standard for commercial trucks. Currently trucks must be less than 65 feet in length to use either highway.

'Haphazard consultation'

In the preliminary injunction issued in May halting construction on the project, U.S. District Judge James Donato said the agencies' first salmon-related assessments were filled with "material inconsistencies" that were "contradictory and unclear" and that the court "cannot rubber-stamp a haphazard consultation process."

Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbie Jr. said that the re-initiation process with NMFS began in May 2014 and Caltrans "did not undertake it pursuant to the stipulation entered last week," Frisbie said in an emailed statement.

Caltrans did not comment on how a new biological assessment will be any different than the three prepared before, which were deemed insufficient by Judge Donato - one of which the court and plaintiffs were made aware of only a few days before the motion hearing.

"The Court was not made aware of the existence of the BA3 (a third biological assessment) until the day of the hearing," the May order granting preliminary injunction states. "When pressed to explain why the BA3 was not provided to the Plaintiffs or the Court in a timely fashion, Caltrans was unable to provide an explanation."

Citing the ongoing preliminary injunction that gives the court jurisdiction over the case, Frisbie said, "Caltrans cannot comment on pending litigation" in response to why three separate biological assessments were prepared for the project.

A spokesman for National Marine Fisheries Service said the agency could not comment since "not all aspects of this lawsuit have been adjudicated."

'Ill-conceived project'

Opponents say that the 197/199 project will increase erosion and delivery of sediment into the Middle Fork Smith River, which will harm habitat for coho salmon already considered a threatened species.

Dr. Chris Frissell, a fisheries biologist focusing on salmon and trout ecology who was hired by the plaintiffs to assess potential impacts to salmon from the 199/197 project, found that long-term increases in sediment delivery to the Middle Fork Smith are "highly likely to occur," according to court documents.

In a Monday interview with the Triplicate, Frissell highlighted the basic reasons for his declaration.

"The highway is right next to the river," he said, referring to the lack of a buffer to catch sediment that comes pouring off Caltrans' planned cut-slopes during heavy winter rains.

"There really was no plan to manage that runoff," Frissell added. He said that although Caltrans addressed short-term impacts to prevent sediment from reaching the river during construction, the project maintains current drainage patterns with flow to the nearest tributaries or directly to the river without any buffer to catch sediment.

Additionally, during the first rains of the season, pollutants on the road from motor traffic wash directly into the river, and "that is very toxic runoff," Frissell said.

Because of the highway's proximity to the river, there is a high potential for truck accidents to become truck spills into the river, and Frissell said that the potential for increased STAA truck traffic needs to be addressed in relation to salmon.

"That's a major consideration that needs a careful analysis before you can say that altering the highway is not going to have an impact on the salmon," Frissell said.

Mike Sullivan, chairman of the Del Norte Local Transportation Commission and the county supervisor who represents the area where the project is planned, has said that the lawsuit blocking the project is hurting economic development in Del Norte County.

Friends of Del Norte have said that STAA trucks are inappropriate for the winding, narrow Smith River canyon and that any highway improvement projects should focus on safety issues for all motorists.

"This is just an ill-conceived project," said Gillespie, president of FDN. "The important issues of highway motorist safety on highways 199/197 can be addressed on a smaller scale without the massive erosive bank cuts required to allow the passage of STAA trucks that endanger the Smith River water quality and threaten our vital fisheries."

Gillespie said that the push for STAA trucks did not make sense since improvements on Highway 299 will already open Del Norte County to STAA truck traffic if needed, and he believes other funding sources can be found to address safety issues on the often dangerous highway.

"With the current accident rate, certainly there may be money to improve the highway without going after STAA truck money," Gillespie said.

Reach Adam Spencer