Are Unreasonable Policies Killing Airports?

watsonvilleOn August 13, 2014 the dedication of the rebuilt taxiway at Watsonville Municipal Airport was heralded by a ribbon cutting ceremony. The ribbon cutting was done by Don French, previous Airport Manager.

The rebuilt and repaved taxiway is located west of the north south runway and goes to and from the approach end of runway 9. The finished project culminated 10 years of frustrating delays and red tape caused by the California Fish and Game Department and US Fish and Wildlife Service. (CalPilots Editor’s Note: We have been questioning the role of these government ‘environmental’ agencies for years. They have been over stepping theie role and causing major issues for the very user base they are supposed to serve).

The problem: is the airport an airport, or is it strictly a habitat for growing the Santa Cruz Tarplant (Holocarpha macradenia)?

The US Fish and Wildlife Service consider the plant “threatened”; while the California Department of Fish and Game considers it “endangered”. It’s a plant that some regard as a worthless noxious weed.

Tarweed is unpalatable to farm animals and wildlife. Up in eastern Oregon a different species of tarweed is sprayed with weed-killer to allow other plants to compete for soil nutrients and water.

The Santa Cruz species’ range is Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. It’s a primary succession species (first to establish) and relies on disturbances to exist, such as scrapping the soil, cutting competing grasses, or heavy grazing.

There are extensive acreages of the plant here. One of the biggest is east of Amesti Road and the south side of Pioneer Road. And guess where else it occurs, on Watsonville Airport where the grass is mowed to reduce fire danger and produce hay. The California Department of Fish and Game insisted on preserving every tarweed plant.

Before the fix-the-deteriorated-taxiway-project could proceed and be funded, surveys and studies costing $300,000 had to be approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service and State Department of Fish & Game.

This took 10 years. In the interim, airplanes risked propeller damage, jets risked engine damage by ingesting rocks and pieces of old asphalt being thrown up by the nose-wheel tire.

Once the engineering was complete, the grants obtained and bid awarded, the Department asked the airport for $127,000. Why? To compensate for destroying less than 10 tarplants, prior to beginning the construction project.

Current airport management (Rayvon Williams) refused, and asked the FAA and US Fish and Wildlife Service to intercede. Neither government agency was successful. The airport was left to complete the construction by modifying the construction process to avoid Tarplants, adding more time and cost.

Now that the taxiway reconstruction which required extraordinary persistence by airport management is complete, the next challenge is another environmental hurdle. The old Visual Approach Slope Indicator (VASI) lights need to be replaced with modern Precision Approach Path Indicator (PAPI) lights.

PAPIs’ are needed to provide additional glide slope guidance over houses on short final to runway 20. And they are crucial in low visibility instrument approaches to runway 2 coming in from the Monterey Bay.

The lights require a four foot square concrete base. You would think this should be simple? Nope. This potentially life saving installation is not allowed, because it might, might kill some tarweed.

Does the Department think the weed is more important than human life and valuable property? And apparently it’s tolerable with them if an aircraft has an accident and kills some tarweed? It’s a case of irrational priorities or fanatical obsession by pseudo environmentalists.

The question is: how many other airports are having their improvement and maintenance projects stopped or delayed–and costs escalated by unreasonable demands and policies? And, what can be done to change these absurd policies or rules? Have our local US and State representatives been contacted? Yes. And what have they done to curb the CA Department of F&G – nothing.

It’s time for all pilot groups, local associations, AOPA and CalPilots to take action. It’s a safety issue as well as an economic issue.

Dan Chauvet – Watsonville Pilots Association dchauvet