I’m replacing sidewalk in an existing built and highly urbanized area of our city. Why do I need cultural studies for my environmental document?

It’s a common and valid question. While the initial reaction is to quickly blame our environmental team members for project delays on a seemingly straightforward project, they’re actually helping us ensure that we comply with federal regulations (and ultimately keep the federal funds on our projects). Through the assistance of one of our Environmental Coordinators, Laura Walsh, I hope to explain what triggers the requirement for cultural studies.

When a Preliminary Environmental Study (PES) form is presented for a Caltrans archaeologist’s review, a background search from various archaeological databases is done for the project area and the surrounding or outlining areas. If the database search reveals certain historical clues or prior cultural finds (above ground or below ground) within or near the project area, a Section 106 study will be required.

Essentially, if there is any potential to find cultural resources, a cultural study will be required. It doesn’t matter whether that potential is a 1%, 50%, or 99% chance of finding something, the requirement for the study is triggered. The regulations do not have a measuring stick for potential. The regulations, however, are very clear that once it has been determined that there is any potential of a finding, the project is “kicked out” from a screened undertaking memo, and a technical study is required.

So while it’s easy to believe an environmental coordinator is arbitrarily enforcing his/her opinion on your project, the coordinator’s responsibility for requiring a technical study is actually driven by the federal regulations.

This is a simplified explanation of the regulations and environmental laws involved. If you’re interested in the specifics of the governing guidance, please contact the assigned Local Assistance Environmental Coordinator for your agency.