WILLITS, Calif. (KGO) --ABC7 News has learned a controversial Caltrans project has been issued a notice of repeated violations of the U.S. Clean Water Act and allowed pollution to run off into sensitive salmon habitat. It happened in Mendocino County near Highway 101, where Caltrans is building a six mile freeway bypass around the town of Willits.
The first phase will cost at least $210 million and involves the largest wetlands fill in Northern California in at least 20 years.
Caltrans has missed deadline after deadline for environmental improvements required by the state and federal government.
ABC7 News had planned a comprehensive update on the Willits Bypass, but Caltrans backed out of a scheduled interview at the last minute and is refusing to speak on camera.
Caltrans asked ABC7 News to submit questions and allow them to answer in writing only. While ABC7 News does accept written information, journalistic standards demand that we ask the custodians of our tax money for a face to face interview, to allow for follow up questions on controversial topics.
Caltrans did give ABC7 News a tour of the bypass site last month, but no interview.
Construction on the Willits Bypass is in its second year. Work stopped for the winter rainy season, but it is back in full swing now. At six miles long, the construction site is huge, running right through habitat for threatened Coho salmon and steelhead trout. By law, Caltrans must protect the creeks, and its construction permit also requires significant environmental improvements to help fish survive.
Caltrans officials says they actually went beyond the requirements last fall when they cleared debris out of a creek to help fish get up the stream to lay their eggs. But when heavy rain finally arrived in February, Caltrans' erosion control measures failed, allowing pollution to flow into the creeks just at the time Coho salmon were breeding.
Coho need clear water to dig up loose gravel and lay their eggs. The Salmon Protection and Watershed Network says sediment can be deadly for the fish.
"Sediment in the water raises the temperature, it decreases the amount of dissolved oxygen and it can smother the eggs all together," SPAWN biologist Preston Brown said.
The February erosion problems in Willits were so bad, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board notified Caltrans it violated the federal Clean Water Act, with 10 straight days of pollution over the allowed level. Water Board officials would not talk on camera, but public documents show they ordered Caltrans to make improvements.
Caltrans submitted photos to show its progress, saying contractors "immediately began work following the rain event to correct the conditions" and they would do more as weather allowed.
In late March another big rain storm hit. Water officials inspected the site and found serious problems again. They sent Caltrans an inspection report with a list of more required corrections and photos to document the issues.
The photos include shots of South Haehl Creek, which is supposed to be protected from sediment. Picture after picture shows muddy water flowing downhill toward the creek with captions by water board staff indicating locations where there was "inadequate erosion and sediment control" or "no effective erosion control."
The drainage system was so overwhelmed, Caltrans tried to pump up the turbid water with trucks and haul it away. The water board inspection report says "water trucks are an inefficient and unsustainable pollution prevention strategy."
Caltrans is required to monitor water quality at the construction site. ABC7 News went through Caltrans data for South Haehl Creek during eight days of rain starting April 25. Pollution caused by suspended sediment in the water was above the allowed level at some time on every day we checked, sometimes more than 100 percent above what is allowed.
A Caltrans email to ABC7 News acknowledged that since February "turbidity exceeded the maximum (allowed) during most rainstorms," but Caltrans said it happened "with decreasing frequency as repairs progressed."
Caltrans submitted more photos to the water board showing improvements, and by the time Abc7 News toured the site in May, it did look a lot better. But the spawning season for the threatened species of fish in the area is over.
A biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife confirmed that on Saturday, June 7, there were young salmon and steelhead in the creek about a mile downstream from where the erosion control failed. He said there is no way to know whether more fish would have survived if less dirt had gotten into the water.
The Water Board's Notice of Violation said Caltrans could be fined up to $10,000 a day for the pollution violations, but so far that has not happened.
In a letter to the Water Board, a Caltrans senior engineer said he does not agree with the Water Board finding that preparation for the rainy season was "inadequate."
Here are links to the Notice of Violation, inspection report and photos, and Caltrans' full responses:
Notice of Caltrans Water Quality Violation 2/26/14
Photos with Violation Notice 2/26/14
Caltrans Response to Notice of Violation
Caltrans Photos Attached to Response
Water Board Inspection Report 4/2/14
Water Board Inspection Report Photos 4/2/14
Caltrans Response to Inspection Report with Photos
Written and produced by Jennifer Olney