Caltrans Exploring Adaptations For Sea Level Rise

 

Motorists of the future may find themselves driving between Arcata and Eureka atop a causeway suspended over the waters of an expanded Humboldt Bay.

 

A raised roadway one of several potential adaptation measures being considered for this six-mile stretch of Highway 101 that runs mere feet from the rising waters of Humboldt Bay.

 

On Wednesday, employees with Caltrans (the California Department of Transportation) appeared before the California Coastal Commission to deliver an update on the agency’s long-term plans to deal with sea level rise on this thoroughfare.

 

Environmental activists say such planning is urgently needed. “It’s definitely past time to be looking at building a causeway, because the sea level is rising,” Jennifer Kalt, executive director of the nonprofit Humboldt Baykeeper, told the Outpost Thursday. “There’s not going to be any way to stop it, so we need to be able to figure out ways to live with it.”

 

Some sea level rise projections have shown that sections of Hwy. 101 north of Eureka could see monthly flooding by 2023 if adaptation measures aren’t taken. 

 

At Wednesday’s Coastal Commission hearing, Jennifer Savage, California policy manager with the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation, criticized Caltrans for failing to include adaptation measures in the Corridor Improvement Project from the beginning. 

 

“This project could have been a great example of how to do things,” she said. “Instead, it’s just one more in a long list of projects reluctantly approved despite being, as Chair [Steve] Padilla said, ‘wholly inadequate.’”

 

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Caltrans has been studying possible improvements to Broadway for decades, starting with a proposed bypass in the 1960s. That plan was abandoned, as were several others. The most recent attempt at solving this problem, called the Eureka Broadway Multimodal Corridor Plan, was begun in 2019, using funding allocated by the Humboldt County Association of Governments (HCAOG), in conjunction with Caltrans, and the city of Eureka. The plan was discussed in depth at the Dec. 17 board meeting of HCAOG. The final cost of the project is estimated to be $155 million, although proponents claim social benefits resulting from the project will eventually bring in three times that amount.
But some complain this project is too ambitious, among other things, and may take too long to address the very immediate safety issues. Colin Fiske, director of the Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities said the focus should be on safety.
“The issue is that people are dying on Broadway with disturbing regularity, and I don't want to talk about any project that's going to take 20 years — or maybe never get built — until after we've exhausted all the options for improving safety now,” Fiske said.
Many people fear that the new roadways would interfere with the hiking trails along the coast. Some wonder about the wisdom of building new roadways in an area that is slated to be under water, as sea levels rise. The contamination in the Balloon Tract is a source of worry to others. And of course, any new construction west of Broadway would have to be approved by the California Coastal Commission, which could be a formidable barrier, especially if portions of the road would traverse wetlands. 
Humboldt Baykeeper Director Jennifer Kalt said the scope of the project simply seems out of reach.
“The city of Eureka has already wasted over a million dollars on a road proposal with the same environmental constraints,” she said. “We need to fix safety problems on Broadway as soon as possible instead of pursuing this fantasy solution.”
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The city of Eureka has received a $300,000 community-wide grant from the EPA’s Brownfield Program to assess sites between the Balloon Track and Waterfront areas and determine how contaminated they are with petroleum and other hazardous substances. Once sites are assessed, they’re eligible for cleanup grants.

The grant is expected to fund: 

  • the creation of a list of eligible properties, which is currently underway; 
  • the first phase of an environmental site assessment that will include non-invasive, paper-based research on the property; 
  • the second phase of the site assessment that will include testing suspect sites; 
  • preparing documents related to cleanup planning and redevelopment;
  • preparing a final report of the findings for the EPA; 
  • community outreach meetings throughout the process.

The project is currently in Stage 1, inventorying sites, and the group expects to move into Stage 2, conducting the first phase of the environmental site assessments, in January or February, Wisniewski said.

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The small, coastal community of King Salmon in Humboldt County, California is likely at the highest risk of relative sea-level rise on the entire U.S. West Coast. Relative sea-level rise includes vertical land motion, in addition to changes in water level. King Salmon experiences rising waters at a rate nearly three times the global average because the land is sinking due to tectonic activity (earthquakes).

 
This community experiences flooding regularly, today. Like the rest of the world, it’s projected to get worse, and at an accelerated rate. In addition to water intruding from the Humboldt Bay, King Salmon also experiences flooding when groundwater rises with changing tides and storm surges. Plus there’s a nuclear plant there that ceased operations in 1976, where spent nuclear fuel is still stored on site, vulnerable to inundation. The average income within the community remains low, so many are unable to afford adaptation methods, multiplying the threat of rising seas. 
 
As part of my thesis research at Humboldt State University, I conducted personal interviews with the community to hear directly from the residents about their experiences with past flooding and their thoughts about future sea-level rise.Flooding in King Salmon is not a new phenomenon, but it’s being exacerbated by sea-level rise.
 
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Highway 101 through Eureka is one of California’s most dangerous stretches of road. Structurally, the road is bad for non-vehicular users: it is wide, fast, and crosswalks are too spaced too far apart, to name a few problems. Local agencies and advocates are looking for ways to make Broadway safer for people walking and biking.
What do wetlands, contaminated soil, and traffic congestion have to do with it? 
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