After a long afternoon of public testimony, which included harrowing video footage of near-collisions at the Indianola cutoff, the California Coastal Commission this evening approved a long-planned renovation project from the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) for the six-mile stretch of Highway 101 between Eureka and Arcata. 

 

Voting 10-1, with Commissioner Sara Aminzadeh casting the lone dissenting vote, the commission approved the project, but only after adding some conditions designed to expedite sea-level rise planning, which the commissioners agreed is urgently needed on this road in particular.

 

Executive Director John Ainsworth and Chair Dayna Bochco both referred to this section of highway as “ground zero” for sea-level rise, noting that the land around Humboldt Bay is subsiding as the oceans rise.

 

But ultimately the commission decided that safety concerns are too pressing to hold out for more comprehensive (meaning expensive and bureaucratically complex) planning measures, such as building a causeway or embarking on managed retreat to higher ground for the businesses and infrastructure now sitting on reclaimed tidelands.

 

Construction of the “corridor improvement” project — which will include an undercrossing at Indianola, a half-signal at Airport Road and closure of the other four median crossings, among other elements — is scheduled to begin next year and last into 2026.

 

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Several months after announcing its intent to construct a $400 million aquaculture facility on the Samoa Peninsula, a Norwegian company has flagged water infrastructure and site contamination issues that could be “show stoppers.”

 

At the July 23 Board of Supervisors meeting, the company’s request for “financial incentives/funding” to address the issues was met with commitment to seek grant funding. 

 

But the timing and success of that process is uncertain and the company’s board of directors will meet in September to decide whether or not to proceed with the project’s permitting. 

 

Supervisor Mike Wilson was a harbor district commissioner when the district took control of the pulp mill site several years ago and had 2.7 million gallons of stored toxins removed.

 

“I think this is not an unusual discussion that a community might have when you want to seek out economic development,” he said.

The community needs to be convinced that infrastructure and clean-up investments will “generally benefit the county and not just one company,” he continued.

 

Supervisors voted to have the county’s task force identify “funding and financing solutions” to the site issues and make a presentation to the board within 45 days.

 

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With a “huge” price tag looming over infrastructure problems at the Samoa Peninsula, a representative from Nordic Aquafarms said Wednesday the company’s plan to build a large fish farm at the site could be in trouble if the quagmire remains unaddressed.

 

“The county’s recognizing this project is — I’m not saying it’s in jeopardy, but it potentially is, if we don’t solve this problem,” said Lynette Mullen, Nordic Aquafarms’ community liaison in Humboldt County.

 

Local surface water needed for Nordic’s proposed fish farm can be highly turbid, or murky, during the winter months, and the cost of treating it could range into the double-digit millions. Meanwhile, the defunct Samoa pulp mills left behind hazardous waste, turning portions of the site into a toxic brownfield.

 

Without a locally driven solution, Nordic will be left to convince investors the costs involved in mitigating these factors are worth it, Mullen explained. And while Humboldt County has called on a task force to look into the issues — with a staff update coming in 45 days — Mullen emphasized urgency.

 

“I can tell you that … we ain’t going to pay,” said Dennis Mayo of the McKinleyville Community Services District. He explained that his district is billed for water by the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, which manages the water infrastructure for the Samoa site. “If you’re counting on (us)? You can forget it.”

 

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Fortification of dikes needed to protect infrastructure like Highway 101

 

Humboldt Bay is reclaiming its former territory, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.

 

Between 1890 and 1910, almost 90% of Humboldt Bay’s salt marshes, about 8,100 acres, were “diked and drained for agricultural uses or walled off from tidal inundation with the construction of the Northwest Pacific Railroad,” according to the “Humboldt Bay Shoreline Inventory, Mapping and Sea Level Rise Vulnerability Assessment” completed in 2013 by local sea level rise expert Aldaron Laird. Now only 4% of the land is salt marsh.

 

After keeping the sea at bay for over a hundred years, the earthen dikes are beginning to fail, both because they haven’t been maintained and because they aren’t tall enough to hold back the rising tides brought on by rising sea levels.

 

The dikes, which are on average 10 feet tall, are finding it increasingly challenging to hold back tides that are ranging from 7.8 to 9.5 feet in height. When a 9.5-foot extremely high tide and storm surge joined forces to damage the dikes in the area in 2006, the governor had to declare a state of emergency, but those types of high tides are expected to be the monthly norm by 2050.

 

“Sea level rise is an effect of climate change, specifically from the warming of the atmosphere and oceans,” stated more recent 2018 research from Laird entitled “Diked Shoreline Sea Level Rise Adaptation Feasibility Study.” “Going forward, melting ice from areas like Greenland and Antarctica have the potential to greatly accelerate the rate and elevations of sea level rise, particularly after 2050.”

 

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Local expert Aldaron Laird said, ‘We need to be hustling and get this stuff done now’

 

The future for coastal regions like Humboldt County is expected to get “floodier.”

 

A report released Wednesday by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that sunny day flooding, also known as tidal flooding, will continue to increase. This year, Humboldt Bay is expected to experience six to 12 days of sunny day flooding after experiencing 12 such days in 2018.

 

Aldaron Laird, an environmental consultant with Trinity Associates, has been working on the issue of sea level rise in Humboldt Bay for over a decade and said the local jurisdictions are making steady progress to address the issue. They first did an inventory of the areas that would be most susceptible to sea level rise, which include King Salmon and Fields Landing, and are now shifting gears toward preventing the damage it will cause.

 

Caltrans will be going before the California Coastal Commission in August to go over the impact of sea level rise on the U.S. Highway 101 corridor.

 

“Over the next five to 10 years,” Laird said, “that’s when all this stuff will get worked out.” But Laird said that timeline is “cutting it close.”

 

While the utility owners and Caltrans rely on the dikes to protect Highway 101 and the utility lines, Laird said many of the dikes are eroding and lie in various states of disrepair. The dikes are mostly 10 feet tall and the tides have risen to about nine feet tall, so Laird said just one foot of sea level rise will lead to thousands of acres being flooded every day.

 

“We could have two feet of sea level rise by 2030 or 2050,” Laird said.

 

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