Caltrans to pay nearly $2 Million to North Coast Regional Water Board for water quality violations

By on April 13, 2018

A settlement agreement of $1,954,999 has been reached between the North Coast Regional Water Board (NCRWB) and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) regarding alleged water quality violations of stormwater permits associated with construction of the Highway 101, six-mile long Willits Bypass project. The project began in February 2013.

The Willits Bypass was constructed to provide an uninterrupted route for Highway 101 around the city of Willits. The new bypass provides connections to Willits via both the north and south interchanges. When construction of the southern interchange began in 2013, it required vegetation removal and grading across hilly terrain, as well as construction of six bridges, including four crossings over Haehl Creek.

Between February 2013 and April 2014, water quality monitoring data and reports from Caltrans engineers indicated that approximately 3.4 million gallons of sediment-laden stormwater from the construction site entered Haehl Creek and significantly elevated the creek’s turbidity levels. Inadequate pollution prevention measures, resulted in the discharge of approximately 3.4 million gallons of sediment-laden stormwater to Haehl Creek. The creek is a tributary of Baechtel Creek, Outlet Creek, and the South Fork Eel River.

Additionally, the NCRWB verified inadequate erosion and sediment controls at the southern interchange before the 2013 winter rains, a violation of the Clean Water Act and California Water Code. The state’s Water Act/Code require erosion and sediment controls of construction sites to protect nearby waterways. Abnormally high levels of sediment in stormwater runoff can alter or obstruct flows resulting in flooding; smother aquatic animals and habitats; and reduce water clarity, which makes it difficult for organisms to breathe, find food and refuge, and reproduce.

“Project planning and erosion protection must take the highest priority in any construction project when large amounts of dirt are being disturbed next to creeks in the rainy season,” said Matt St. John, Regional Water Board executive officer. “We believe that Caltrans has made positive efforts to improve the water quality associated with its construction projects since the Willits Bypass discharges and we look forward to continuing to work cooperatively with Caltrans on construction-related water quality concerns.”

Caltrans will pay the almost $2 million settlement to the State Water Resources Control Board’s Cleanup and Abatement account. Of that amount $45,000 will be applied toward a Supplemental Environmental Project (SEP); SEPs allow a portion of a penalty to be applied to an environmentally beneficial project or purpose. In the case of the Caltrans Willits bypass settlement the SEP funds will be used by the San Francisco Estuary Institute and will consist of posting 35 Clean Water Act Section 401-certified Caltrans projects and maps in the North Coast on EcoAtlas (https://www.ecoatlas.org/), a database of aquatic resources.