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Pipeline project raises concerns for fans of Armstrong Woods

A water-system upgrade that might seem routine almost anywhere else has drawn considerable scrutiny at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, where park supporters are worried about the project’s impact on old-growth trees and other wildlife in the popular destination near Guerneville.

The plan to replace more than a mile of water line on the valley floor drew enough opposition last winter to prompt state park officials to scrap an initial environmental study in favor of a broader review, delaying construction at least a year.

But California State Parks environmental coordinator Patricia DuMont said the fact that so many locals love and enjoy the redwood preserve has made it all the more important for them to understand what the department has in mind and the precautions it plans to take to safeguard the vulnerable resources there.

“They have valid concerns,” DuMont said of project critics. “If we’re not explaining it well enough for the community to understand that we do want to protect the redwoods ... it means we need to provide a better description. And that’s OK.”

Two upcoming informational meetings have been scheduled to address what DuMont said were hundreds of questions and objections raised since plans for the water-system improvement project were unveiled.

Comments made during the Thursday and Nov. 1 sessions also will contribute toward development of a draft environmental impact report on the proposed pipeline.

“There’s a lot of emotion around this,” said Michele Luna, executive director of the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, which operates the park’s entrance station, welcoming more than 700,000 visitors a year to the old-growth redwood grove. “We’re obviously really happy that they’re doing a full EIR, because that was our big concern.”

Construction was to have begun this fall, though the environmental process underway means it will be at least autumn 2015 before the work can proceed, according to park officials.

DuMont said she doesn’t blame those who frequent the park for working to ensure no harm comes to it, adding that she shares that sentiment.

Were construction plans to include extensive open trenching, as some critics seem to believe, “I would chain myself to a redwood” to protest the work, Dumont said.

The $1.4 million project involves replacing a leaky 4-inch water line with an 8-inch pipeline placed about 30 feet below ground and running about 1.3 miles, from an area near the entrance kiosk at the front of the park to a 50,000-gallon water tank at the rear of the park, roughly following the course of Armstrong Woods Road.

The project would replace deteriorating equipment with a new pipeline to serve the park’s restrooms, maintenance facilities and a handful of residences on the premises.

The construction would involve a process called horizontal directional drilling, alleviating the need to dig open trenches along most of the project length.

Instead, four pits about 6 feet deep and about 8 feet by 4 feet on the surface would be hand dug under a botanist’s supervision to provide access for a drilling mechanism that, in turn, would bore 12-inch horizontal passageways into which the pipeline would be inserted. The machinery involved uses a global positioning system to guide the drill and then draw the pipeline through the finished passage, DuMont said.

The work would require moving heavy equipment into the grove, though it would remain on paved roads and parking lots, staged near the front of the park, she said.

There also would be a trenched area about a quarter-mile in length at the back of the construction area, beyond the old-growth trees near the water tank, she said.

But the overall idea is to limit the impact of the project on the stunning redwoods - the tallest at 310 feet and the oldest estimated at more than 1,400 years old - by working well below the root network that sustains them, DuMont said. The drilling also would be under Fife Creek, which runs roughly parallel to the park road and the water line.

“We’re below the root zone. It’s a very effective, environmentally safe method for installing water lines,” DuMont said. She said the agency has done similar work in projects at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, in the Sierra foothills east of Stockton and at MacKerricher State Park near Fort Bragg.

Construction would have to occur outside the spring and summer bird nesting season.

But the project, announced with the public release of an initial environmental study and mitigated negative declaration last December, stunned stewards and visitors who scrambled to understand what was afoot and make their concerns known to the state. Luna and many others said they want to see the state consider alternatives to replacing the water line in the first place - drilling additional wells, for instance, or installing compost toilets and putting the needs of the trees ahead of human convenience.

DuMont said the park’s mission of protecting wildlife and other resources means environmental considerations were built into the proposal, making a full environmental impact report unnecessary. But because of the outpouring of public concern, the department abandoned the initial study in favor of a more robust environmental study and greater public input, she said.

DuMont, who is coordinating the environmental review, said more than 200 letters and emails have come her way, raising red flags about a range of issues, from the health of redwoods and nesting birds to fears of diminishing groundwater. Hundreds more people have signed an online petition opposing the project, she said.

But DuMont said she appreciates the opportunity to engage the public more fully on the proposal.

She said the draft environmental report would likely be completed in late January or early February and circulated for public review and comment for 60 days before the final EIR was assembled.

The public meetings this fall are from 5 to 9 p.m. Thursday and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 1

Both will be held in the Redwood Room at the Monte Rio Community Center, 20488 Highway 116.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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