Fates intersect for US 12, alkali bees

The upcoming phases of the highway widening have spurred concerns about alkali bee survival, which in turn spells worry for alfalfa farmers.

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TOUCHET - A small bee might be a big issue in U.S. Highway 12's future.

Alfalfa seed growers who depend on alkali bees to pollinate their crops are worried that the new route for the highway will threaten the bees' survivability and, in turn, one of the area's most valuable commodities.

Growers voiced their concerns to Washington state Department of Transportation officials Wednesday night during an open house on the environmental assessment of the project held at Touchet School.

The assessment is part of the planning for the last phases of the project to widen Highway 12 to four lanes between Burbank and the city of Walla Walla. Those phases will construct a new route north of the present highway from the vicinity of Frenchtown just east of Touchet to the Wallula area.

Among the growers' main concerns are how the new highway right of way will impact existing bee nests in beds of alkali soil and the toll traffic on the highway will have on bee populations as the insects fly out to pollinate plants.

In a letter to WSDOT planners earlier this month, Walla Walla County commissioners said the recently released environmental assessment "contained a distressing statement: ‘Traffic on the new highway may cause farmers to switch from alfalfa see to a different crop.'

"That comment/finding causes great concern to producers, the alfalfa see industry as a whole, members of the financial community and this legislative body," said the letter, which was signed by Commissioners Gregg Loney, Greg Tompkins and Perry Dozier.

But at Wednesday's meeting, WSDOT Environmental Manager Jason Smith stressed that project officials are anxious to talk with growers to find ways to mitigate any impacts on the bees as part of the assessment process.

"What I would encourage people to do is get their comments in so we can address these issues and start the process to find out what is the appropriate level of mitigation," he told growers Mike Buckley and Kirk Bauman, members of the Touchet-Gardena Alfalfa Seed Growers Association.

Bauman said the Walla Walla Valley is one of the few areas in the U.S. where the alkali bee has not gone extinct. "A lot of people don't understand how unique these bees are and (their survival) is due to the efforts of the growers," he said.

Smith said WSDOT officials are going to start meeting with growers later this month and will be bringing in "a broader team" to work on mitigation issues. "We're not going to wait for the comment period to end," he told Buckley and Bauman.

The alkali bee issue was not the only discussion going on at the open house, which drew about 100 people to the school gymnasium during the two-and-a half hour event. Other topics included floodplain preservation, wetlands, wildlife movement, air quality and water resources.

The meeting came at the half-way point of the public comment period, which lasts for 30 days, Smith said. After that, transportation officials will go to work to address concerns and issues raised by people, prepare the decision document on the environmental assessment and the publish it.

While the public comment period has a set length, there is no "static timeline" for preparing the decision document, Smith said.

"It takes as long as it takes," he said.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318. Check out his blog at blogs.ublabs.org/randomthoughts

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