ORICK, Calif. — Near the end of the second and most difficult phase of one of the most challenging highway construction projects in its history, Caltrans gambled on the weather last week, and lost.
Mud flowing from a construction site northeast of this Humboldt County town has fouled valuable fish-spawning streams, leaving the state Department of Transportation to face the possibility of being fined by another state agency for intentionally violating the state's own environmental laws.
The problem is particularly embarrassing for Caltrans because the normally highly regarded agency already is under fire for the Oakland freeway disaster that claimed dozens of lives in the Oct. 17 Bay Area earthquake.
Caltrans concedes that after falling months behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget on the 12-mile Redwood Bypass, it attempted to make up for some lost time by ignoring orders from the state Regional Water Quality Control Board to prepare the unpaved project for winter rains.
That gambit ended in failure when an unexpected early rainstorm pounded the U.S. 101 construction site last week, washing tons of mud into sensitive, gravel-lined fish-spawning streams just as salmon and trout were returning from the ocean to lay their eggs.
"Up by the job site, it is a total smothering of everything," said Harry Rectenwald, a fisheries biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game. "It's very serious, long-term damage."
The erosive mud flow dumped from six inches to two feet of silt in the streams of Redwood National Park and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. The erosion ruined this year's spawn in the Redwood and Prairie creek systems, Rectenwald said, and its effects could linger for years.
"We gambled and lost," acknowledged Dennis Grinsell, assistant resident engineer for Caltrans. "We were very close to finishing (the grading portion of) the project. We took a chance, and in retrospect it wasn't prudent."
John Hannum of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board is less generous. He said Caltrans continued working into the rainy season even though water board staff denied a request to do so. Then Caltrans ignored further warnings to "button up for winter" before rains hit, he said.
"We didn't think it was a good idea to go into the wet season with your pants around your ankles," Hannum said. "Caltrans never even recognized those (winterizing) measures as important."
The water board is scheduled to meet next month in nearby Eureka to decide what to do about the erosion. A fine would not be unique--a regional board in Lake Tahoe has fined Caltrans three times in the last year for accidents and the San Luis Obispo board has threatened to fine the Department of Parks and Recreation. But it apparently would be the first for an intentional violation of state pollution laws by a state agency.
In the meantime, Caltrans has halted all construction work and brought in 100 California Conservation Corps members and dozens of inmate laborers from the Department of Correction to stop more erosion.
Nearby, state and federal parks workers, along with the state Department of Fish and Game, are marshaling suction equipment to try to vacuum up the worst of the silt from the lower reaches of affected streams, where most of the spawning would take place.
"It will be extremely, extremely difficult--impossible in the very steep upper reaches," Rectenwald said.
Rugged terrain has troubled Caltrans for the entire project, making it one of the agency's most challenging road projects ever.
Building the road, which will divert intercity traffic around the redwoods, required moving 14 million cubic yards of soil, enough to fill 17 Rose Bowls. The soil, fragile and wet, was often the consistency of pudding. Slides were common, even before recent rains. A retaining wall near the project's bridge bulges alarmingly under the pressure of sliding soil, despite an extraordinary effort to shore it up that employs steel beams salvaged from the Golden Gate Bridge when it was rebuilt five years ago.
The difficult conditions took their toll as hilltops were bulldozed to fill valleys and create a smooth road surface. Earthmoving costs grew 37%, from the original bid of $64 million to an estimated $88 million. Paving, to start next spring and end two years later, will cost another $20 million, Grinsell said.
Total cost of the 12-mile-long project, including clearing trees and brush, is nearly $114 million--expensive, but less than the cost of a single mile of the 17-mile Century Freeway being built in Los Angeles. The federal government will cover 90% of the cost of the Redwood Bypass, which was authorized as part of the controversial Redwood National Park expansion in 1978.
Rectenwald, the fisheries biologist, said the cleanup may be beyond human cost. He said the creeks might need a good flood to flush them clean.
"That's what it will take, a flood to wash it all out, without bringing in more stuff behind it," he said. "We'd have been better off if it had been a toxic spill--chlorine, say. That would have just washed through and been over with. It would have killed all the fish, yes, but it would not have destroyed the habitat for the next generation the way this mud has."
Times staff writer Rich Roberts contributed to this story.