July 18, 2013

We wanted to give folks a detailed update on the work done so far on Phase 1 of the Salt River Ecosystem Restoration Project.  The engineering and design has proved to be solid so far with no need for a lot of changes, so construction is going smoothly in that regard.

The low ground water from our dry spring  has been both a benefit and a drawback. It’s really reduced the need for dewatering and pumping, but it’s also meant that our contractor Anderson Dragline, Inc (ADI) has had to purchase water for dust control from an adjacent landowner, rather than using the ground water as they had planned.

Fish clearing has gone extremely well with crews from California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) doing all the fish seining and re-location. The crews started clearing the main Salt River channel two weeks ago and finished down to Cutoff slough last week. They caught and re-located up to 50 individual tidewater gobies and found and re-located one young Coho. As they moved downstream in to the tidally influenced portion of the channel they re-located pipefish, flatfish, perch and other fish.

The coffer dams have gone in at Reas Creek, Smith Creek and the final coffer dam at the downstream end of the project at Cutoff Slough was placed last Wednesday. A diversion pipe has been installed to route water from Francis Creek and Reas creek around the site and out to cutoff slough.  The amount of water from those two sources is quite minimal.

We had some problems with water from a high tide getting around and de-stabilizing the coffer dam at Smith Creek, but got things sorted out that same day and the coffer dam has been fine since then. We worked with the property owner and the ranch hand to work through the issues with the coffer dam placement and access.

The outboard ditch on the outside of the setback berm has been fully excavated and it was decided to expand it slightly to increase its capacity to hold and drain water from the adjacent properties.

The footprint for the new setback berm has been completely stripped and grubbed, except for a couple of discrete areas that have been left due to vegetation that contains a number of nesting birds.  Most of the internal cut areas have been excavated and placed on the berm footprint, as have sediment from the interior pilot slough channels. The berm is being built in several lifts and compacted by equipment.

Last Monday, excavation of the Salt River channel started. ADI plans on having three headings for the main channel excavation and anticipates that it will take about a month for them to complete channel excavation. As of today, ADI has two headings working – the southern end with an excavator and they’re using the dragline on the northern end. Those spoils will be placed both on the setback berm and used to create various landscape fill areas for habitat.

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Other contractors are being used by the Resource Conservation District (RCD) to mow grass to limit areas where birds can nest. The RCD is also contracting to mow large areas of the invasive plant Spartina densiflora, as required by the project EIR and permits, and to reduce nesting habitat for birds.

There was a lot of talk last week about steps the project is taking to avoid disturbing nesting birds within the project area.  The project must comply with the Migratory Bird Act and CDFW regulations that protect all nesting birds. In compliance with our CDFW permit and the EIR mitigation measures for the project, we must have a qualified biologist survey any suitable habitat for nesting birds prior to construction disturbance. Since ADI began project activities in May, the RCD hired a biologist to start conducting the required surveys.

We were all caught by surprise by the number and variety of birds on phase 1. The property has a lot of different types of great habitat; which means lots of different kinds of birds. It quickly became apparent that to get any work done, we needed our biologist to work closely with the contractor and help them work in established buffers, while avoiding any “take” of nests. I understand this is not something that is commonly done because it’s expensive to have that level of biological monitoring and it takes a good contractor who’s willing to follow instructions from the biologist about when, where and how they can work.

In terms of progress, as of June 30 ADI has completed and billed for 30% of the expected construction. In comparing the original schedule ADI submitted against their progress to date; they are behind schedule on some aspects, ahead of schedule on some and right on schedule for others.

We feel fortunate that ADI and our biologist, with lots of creative brainstorming from the entire Construction Management Team and CDFW have been able to get work done in buffers established to protect nesting birds and are pretty proud that we’ve been able to do this without taking a nest. This isn’t to say the situation and process isn’t incredibly frustrating to EVERYONE involved – but we’re trying hard to work through it!

This is not the only project that has to work around avoiding bird nests. We’ve been told that the Willits Bypass project, the Trinity River Restoration Project and the South Bay Salt Ponds project are all dealing with this. ADI said that they had one other project with one bird buffer issue that they had to deal with (I believe it was a sparrow) so they’re not completely caught off guard by this – it’s just that no one expected quite so many birds! The good news is that nesting activity is slowing down and after August 15th, the project won’t be required to do any more nest surveys.

We wanted to clear up a mis-conception we’ve heard going around – that nest buffers from the project are extending out on to other people’s property. The only time a nest buffer has been established on another property was because we had to survey for birds as part of the permit for re-locating the waterline off the project footprint or to do something else directly related to the project and covered under project permits. Please know that buffer’s don’t affect any operations done by adjacent landowners on their land. They only apply to project construction activities within the footprint of the project.

During the rest of the month of July the contractor plans to continue to excavate the Salt River channel and other interior areas to continue building the setback berm. The contractor’s goal is to complete finish grade on the berm sometime the first week of August or so.

We’ve learned a LOT in the two and a half months of working on Phase 1. We’re taking what we’ve learned and applying that to how we approach construction and vegetation management of Phase 2 and look forward to working with all of you to keep work moving forward.