Caltrans will remove nets from Petaluma highway project

Caltrans is implementing new measures to protect birds during construction on Highway 101 in Petaluma, officials announced Thursday.

The agency came under fire last year when contractors installed netting under the Petaluma River bridge and Highway 116 overpass designed to keep migratory cliff swallows from nesting in the construction zone. The netting entangled the birds, killing dozens during the nesting season.

Environmental groups sued Caltrans saying that the environmental impact report did not address the colony of cliff swallows, a federally protected species that has traditionally nested under the Petaluma River bridge from March until August.

Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, inserted a provision into the state budget requiring Caltrans to do more public outreach and detail its efforts to protect birds during the $130 million highway widening project.

"We all agree that the events of last year were avoidable," Levine said in a statement. "This is an opportunity to proactively address an important issue and ensure that this essential transportation project is able to proceed without harming wildlife that is so special to our region."

The bridge work is part of a project to widen Highway 101 from Windsor to Novato and alleviate traffic. Work began in Petaluma last year and is expected to last another two years.

The new measures include removing the nets and installing plastic sheeting to deter birds and removing nests that birds start to build in the construction zone, Caltrans senior construction engineer Christopher Blunk told a meeting of wildlife advocates in Petaluma.

Construction crews will allow birds to nest on parts of the bridge that they have completed and will do demolition work outside of the nesting season, Blunk said.

"The plan for the 2014 season is to allow birds to nest on outside bridge rails and areas outside the work zone," he said. "We are going to do our best to install these measures to protect birds."

Caltrans will hire environmental consultants to monitor the construction project.

Wildlife enthusiasts were cautiously optimistic with the new measures, but disappointed that Caltrans officials did not admit mistakes or take responsibility for last year's bird deaths, citing pending litigation.

"Nothing's wrong with saying sorry or taking responsibility," said Veronica Bowers, founder of Native Songbird Care and Conservation in Sebastopol. "I think this is an improvement over last year. I don't have a huge level of confidence yet."

Gerald Moore, chairman of the Petaluma Wetlands Alliance, said the environmental monitors should be independent.

"I would like to see a clearer solution for how they will monitor construction in 2014," he said. "There will always be bird deaths, hopefully a lot less with the new measures."

Bowers, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Madrone, Marin and Golden Gate Audubon societies lawsuit with Caltrans is scheduled for judgement next month in federal court, said lawyer Danny Lutz, who represents the plaintiffs. The groups are seeking to require Caltrans to add a supplement to its environmental impact statement that officially recognizes the cliff swallow colony and the steps it will take to protect the birds.