Plants killed by widening Highway 99 ?

Has Caltrans started widening Highway 99, without public approval, where it runs through Chico? Some neighbors insist that it has, and there are dead plants to prove it.

David Booth has lived in a neighborhood next to the freeway for most of his life. “I don’t know if we’ve ever had a tree fall over here in 40 years, and now I feel like they’re falling over all the time,” said Booth. “The health of the trees is not good.”

Booth is concerned that Caltrans has ceased to water the trees and greenery growing along Highway 99 above Rey Way, just north of Lower Park, because an upcoming expansion project designed to add two lanes to the busy highway may take that land anyway. He first noticed plants dying a couple of summers ago, when bushes were cut from the fenced-off state property across from his home. Booth confronted maintenance workers, who told him that they were getting ready to widen the freeway.

“Last summer they stopped watering,” asserted neighbor Robert Moore, who also complained to Caltrans about the plants dying. At meetings held by the Butte County Association of Governments (BCAG), the agency that is overseeing the widening, the irrigation issue was swept under the rug. “They didn’t address it at the meetings,” Moore complained. “They didn’t talk of irrigation.”

In an e-mail to the Chico News & Review, Leslie Case, public information officer for Caltrans, stated that “the lower tier of irrigation is turned off to discourage unwanted plant growth (weeds).” In another e-mail, Case stated that “the mature landscape needs only two types of routine maintenance; only weeding and irrigation are necessary.”

Case denied the claim that the neglect is because of any future project.

Andy Newsum, project manager for BCAG, also said that the water has been turned off for maintenance purposes where Caltrans is trying to control the growth of unwanted species, primarily ivy. Newsum acknowledged “the bottom string of irrigation has been turned off,” but “there is no intent on Caltrans’ part to cut off the watering for a future project.”

Caltrans’ decision to turn off the water coincides with the environmental-study portion of the auxiliary lane project. Concurrently, a private consultant is inventorying plants and wildlife that will be affected by the widening.

Newsum still maintains that the highway expansion and the lack of irrigation are independent events. "Caltrans would like to replace their landscape every 25 to 30 years," he said, but that is simply an impossibility due to "lack of funding." The area in question hasn’t been re-landscaped since it was originally planted. Newsum suggests that citizens may not know which foliage is in the best interest of the neighborhood, and when they regard something as beautiful "they’re seeing the undergrowth."