January 2021 Hearing Report

Mandy Sackett
January 1, 2021
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January 2021 Hearing Report

The Coastal Commission’s January meeting took place virtually on Wednesday, Jan. 13 and Thursday, Jan. 14. What was anticipated to be the meeting’s most controversial item, the Point Reyes National Seashore Management Plan Amendment, ended up being postponed from Thursday’s agenda. The plan amendment received tens of thousands of public comments and will be rescheduled at an upcoming meeting.

Wednesday’s agenda included such items of interest as the replacement of the Dr. Fine Bridge in Del Norte County, discussion of the Commission’s draft 309 Coastal Zone Management Act Assessment and Strategy, an update on efforts to plan for sea level rise as required by the previously approved Eureka-Arcata Corridor 101 Highway Improvement project and an embankment armoring project for the Carpinteria Sanitary District.

On Thursday, the Coastal Commission objected to a consistency determination for the Environmental Protection Agency’s to establish national performance standards for discharges incidental to normal operations of commercial vessels – these standards would weaken current state standards.

The meeting did not result in any vote charts.

Coastal Zone Management Act 309 Funding - Strategy and Assessment

The Coastal Commission’s draft 309 Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) Assessment and Strategy highlights important accomplishments on coastal hazards and sea level rise policy guidance, marine debris and public access. California and the Coastal Commission are national and international leaders in coastal management, especially when it comes to strong policy guidance. However, there is much work to be done on implementation, especially when it comes to sea level rise planning and marine debris.

For the 2021-2025 309 Strategy, ActCoastal partners strongly recommend that Coastal Commission staff focus on ensuring that the Commission’s sea level rise planning guidance remains strong and protective of public coastal resources; it must actually translate to strong policy and permitting outcomes. Coastal Commission staff should also focus on addressing the grossly misused emergency permit system, which has led to an unjustifiable amount of unpermitted coastal armoring on our coast.

Additionally, marine debris – specifically plastic pollution – should be a high priority for Coastal Commission staff. The Coastal Commission’s Plastic Pollution Task Force will help identify best ways to incorporate plastic pollution reduction measures into the permitting process and identify enforcement opportunities. Coastal Commission staff should develop policies and practices for including special condition and policy language addressing marine debris reduction for coastal development permits and LCPs. Additionally, more emphasis needs to be put on plastic pollution source reduction measures and putting responsibility on the producers.

Environmental Protection Agency National Performance Standards for Incidental Vessel Discharge

On Thursday, the Coastal Commission officially objected to the Environmental Protection Agency’s National performance standards for discharges incidental to normal operations of commercial vessels. The proposed national performance standards for discharges incidental to normal operations of commercial vessels fail to ensure consistency with the California Coastal Management Program (CCMP). Because the CCMP incorporates all Clean Water Act-based requirements, the Commission appropriately considered the Clean Water Act, the Ocean Plan and the Water Code in determining consistency.

EPA’s proposed standards inappropriately characterize bio-fouling and in-water cleaning and capture systems as “incidental discharges” under the Clean Water Act. These discharges are not incidental to normal operation of a vessel and are therefore particularly appropriate for additional treatment and heightened scrutiny. In addition, because the proposed standards include no provisions for California to strengthen the national standards to meet the state’s existing water quality protection standards, they will lead to degradation of coastal water quality and marine resources in California coastal waters, including the state’s network of Marine Protected Areas and Areas of Biological Significance.

Further, the proposed regulations allow in-water hull and niche cleaning in waters which are already impaired and thus unable to meet beneficial uses. This would result in copper and zinc discharges in water bodies already impaired for these pollutants. San Diego in particular has numerous water bodies impaired for these metals. Any additional water quality impact from increased pollutant loads would frustrate efforts to establish Total Maximum Daily Loads, monitor existing and future discharges, and accurately model efforts to improve water quality in impacted water bodies.

Eureka-Arcata Route 101 Corridor Improvement Project

Last August, Caltrans applied to the Coastal Commission for an “improvement” project featuring a new interchange, bridge replacements and lane extensions along the Eureka-Arcata Route 101 Corridor, a six-mile segment of U.S. Highway 101 that runs along the east side of Humboldt Bay. At the time, Humboldt Baykeeper and the Surfrider Foundation raised serious concerns about investing heavily in infrastructure in an area known to be vulnerable to sea level rise and coastal hazards, especially given the lack of any long-term adaptation plan. Many Coastal Commissioners agreed: Commissioner Dayna Bochco accurately referred to the project area as "ground zero” for sea level rise, Commissioner Caryl Hart called it strange that sea level rise planning would not begin until after the roadway flooded four times, Commissioner Linda Escalante said she’s "never driven on a freeway that is so at risk” and Commissioner Steve Padilla described Caltrans' plan as "wholly insufficient.”

Nonetheless, Commissioners ultimately approved the project, with some small amendments to address sea level rise concerns: the agency must monitor and report on the rising water and coastal flooding at numerous points along the project site and must develop a comprehensive adaptation and implementation plan by 2025. Meanwhile, some sea level rise projections show that sections of Hwy. 101 could see monthly flooding by 2023 if adaptation measures aren’t taken.

At the January meeting, Caltrans staff presented the agency’s first report on how it plans to adapt to sea level rise. Surfrider Foundation staff showed photos and video from the December 2020 king tides illustrating how close the water already comes to the highway, a reality indicating how far behind the planning is. (https://lostcoastoutpost.com/2021/jan/15/causeway-over-bay-between-arcata-and-eureka-caltra/)

Unfortunately while this project could have been a great example of how to do things, it’s just one more in a long list of projects reluctantly approved despite being “wholly inadequate.” As we move into the future, California’s state agencies must do better.

Dr. Fine Bridge Replacement, Del Norte County

In another road-related project, Caltrans sought a permit to replace the existing Hwy. 101 bridge (known as the Dr. Fine Bridge) over the Smith River in Del Norte County. Originally constructed in 1940, the bridge has long been in need of repair and replacement. Caltrans proposed a new bridge with two 12-foot-wide lanes, two 8-foot-wide shoulders, and a six- foot-wide separated pedestrian walkway.

While Caltrans worked with the Tolowa Dee‐Ni' Nation and Elk Valley Rancheria tribes on the aesthetics, the Tolowa Dee-Ni’ had additional concerns including ones regarding water quality impacts to the Smith River – the only undammed river in California and critical fish habitat – and potential harm from contaminated soils to nearby residents. The Surfrider Foundation highlighted these issues as outlined in a comment letter submitted by the Tolowa Dee’Ni’.

While no changes were made, the Commissioners did engage in robust discussion, further highlighting the critical importance of formal consultation between state agencies and tribal nations. Caltrans and/or Commission staff should have invited tribal representatives to attend and made sure all their concerns were addressed before the project came to the Commission for a vote.