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Court Turns Tide in Favor of Desalination Plant – Holds Ample Substantial Evidence Supports the Project’s EIR

Monday, May 27th, 2013

Almost four years after the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) certified an environmental impact report (EIR) and approved a five million gallon a day desalination plant project, the Court of Appeal, First District, in a published opinion (N. Coast Rivers Alliance v. Marin Mun. Water Dist. Bd. of Dirs. (2013) 2013 Cal.App.LEXIS 401), reversed the trial court’s judgment and upheld the adequacy of EIR. At trial, the court determined the EIR violated CEQA in approximately a dozen ways.  Specifically, the trial court concluded the EIR included an inadequate analysis of (1) aesthetic impacts, (2) land use and planning impacts, (3) seismology impacts, (4) water quality impacts caused by shock chlorination, (5) biological impacts caused by entrainment, (6) energy impacts, and (7) greenhouse gas (GHG) emission impacts.  The trial court also concluded that the EIR proposed inadequate mitigation measures for (1) aesthetics, (2) aquatic noise and vibration, and (3) GHG emissions.  Finally, the trial court held that (1) with respect to biological resources the discussion of the existing environmental setting was insufficient, and (2) CEQA required the EIR to be recirculated because a new alternative was included in the Final EIR.  The First District reversed each of the trial court’s holdings.

With respect to aesthetic impacts, the First District stated that “[w]here an EIR contains factual evidence supporting the conclusion that aesthetic impacts will be insignificant, that conclusion must be upheld.”  Because the EIR included such facts and the Petitioners merely disagreed with them, the First District reversed the trial court. The First District also rejected the trial court’s ruling that adopting a landscaping plan as mitigation to soften visual impacts of a structure was inadequate absent a commitment to shield a specific percentage (i.e. 25%, 50%, etc.) of the structure from view.   The First District stated “‘where a public agency has evaluated the potential significant impacts of a project and has identified measures that will mitigate those impacts,’ and has committed to mitigating those impacts, the agency may defer precisely how mitigation will be achieved under the identified measures pending further study.” (Original emphasis.)

Next, the First District reversed the trial court’s holding regarding the adequacy of the land use and planning analysis.  The EIR concluded that, with the exception of one issue that was identified and analyzed in the EIR, the project was consistent with applicable local plans.  The trial court concluded a more detailed discussion of how the project would impact various county general plan policies was required.  The First District first noted that “[d]etermining whether a project is consistent with general plan policies is left to the lead agency; ‘[i]t is emphatically, not the role of the courts to micromanage’ such decisions.” (Original emphasis.)  Next, the First District explained CEQA only requires an EIR to discuss inconsistencies between a project and applicable plans, not all the ways in which a project is consistent with such plans.  “The trial court’s ruling is tantamount to requiring the EIR to provide a detailed discussion of the Project’s consistency with the plan.  CEQA includes no such requirement.”

Turning to the adequacy of the seismology analysis, the First District noted that only generic concerns regarding earthquakes were expressed during the administrative process.  The EIR’s analysis of potential seismology related impacts more than adequately responded to those comments.

The Fist District next rejected the trial court’s conclusion that the EIR’s discussion of potential water quality impacts caused by process used to clean the pipeline (known as shock-chlorination) was inadequate.  The First District began its analysis by stating that “[u]nder the substantial evidence standard, the ‘question is whether [MMWD] reasonably and in good faith discussed [shock-chlorination] in detail sufficient for the public to discern from the []EIR the ‘analytical route … agency traveled from evidence to action.’’” The First District concluded the EIR did.  The First District also rejected the Petitioners argument that it was improper for MMWD to rely on evidence outside of the EIR to support the less than significant impact conclusion reached by the EIR; “when an EIR contains a brief statement of reasons for concluding an impact is less than significant, then the petitioner has the burden of demonstrating ‘the conclusion was not supported by substantial evidence in the administrative record.’” (Original emphasis.)

At trial, the court was particularly critical of the EIR’s conclusions that biological resources impacts caused by entrainment were less than significant. The First District once again disagreed.  The EIR discussed a variety of field sampling techniques employed to evaluate potential entrainment impacts.  The First District stated that “[f]ield sampling is often the sole evidence relied on by lead agencies in evaluating a project’s biological impacts.”  Therefore, “[u]nder the substantial evidence standard of review, the District’s initial sampling effort was more than adequate.”  Nevertheless, MMWD even went further and conducted a year-long pilot-scale desalination program.  NOAA Fisheries and CDFG expressed concerns with one aspect of data collected during the year-long pilot program.  Petitioners argued that MMWD’s decision not to follow the recommendations made by NOAA Fisheries and CDFG rendered the analysis inadequate.  The trial court agreed; however, the First District explained that “[t]his ruling ignores the substantial evidence standard of review.”  Based on the substantial evidence standard, “[t]he issue is not whether other methods might have been used, but whether the agency relied on evidence that a ‘reasonable mind might accept as sufficient to support the conclusion reached’ in the EIR.” MMWD did.  Therefore, notwithstanding the disagreement with NOAA Fisheries and CDFG, the analysis was adequate for the purposes of CEQA.  Additionally, in part because the environmental setting relied on the same biological resource data that the First District found sufficient, it held  “the EIR’s description of the environmental setting was more than adequate.”

The First District also concluded the mitigation measure proposed to address the project’s potentially significant aquatic noise and vibration impact was adequate.  The trial court found that the measure was not sufficiently specific.  The First District disagreed.  The Court explained that “the commitment to undertake consultation with NOAA Fisheries does not impermissibly defer to the future the identification measures.  Consultation with NOAA Fisheries must occur, both as part of the federal permitting process under the CWA and ESA, and under the express terms of the mitigation measure.  Such mitigation is adequate under CEQA.” (Original emphasis.)

Next, the First District rejected the trial court’s conclusion that the EIR should have included a green energy alternative.  The Court explained that “alternatives shall be limited to ones that would avoid or substantially lessen any of the significant effects of the project.” (Original emphasis.)  The EIR concluded the project’s energy impacts were less than significant and the trial court held that conclusion was supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, “the EIR did not need to discuss further green energy credits as an alternative mitigation measure for the energy impacts of the Project.”

With respect to the GHG analysis, the First District reversed the trial court. Based on Assembly Bill No. 32 and MMWD’s own more aggressive goal to reduce GHG emissions, the threshold used in the EIR was whether the project would interfere with Marin County’s goal of reducing GHG emissions to 15 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.  The EIR concluded the project would not interfere with achieving that goal and, as a result, the project’s cumulative contribution was less than significant.  Additionally, in approving the project, the MMWD Board adopted a policy requiring all project-related GHG emissions be offset and the evidence demonstrated this policy commitment was feasible.  The Court also concluded the analysis and policy commitment were supported by substantial evidence.  Therefore, Petitioners’ challenge constituted nothing more than a disagreement with the conclusion reached in the EIR.  Such disagreement does not render an EIR inadequate.

Finally, Petitioners argued and the trial court agreed that the inclusion of a new alternative in the Final EIR required the EIR to be recirculated before certification.  The First District again disagreed.  The Court noted that “recirculation is ‘an exception rather than the general rule.’”  Therefore, “[a]n agency’s decision not to recirculate the draft EIR is entitled to substantial deference.”  The Court found that substantial evidence demonstrated that the new alternative was neither considerably different from other alternatives included in the Draft EIR nor feasible.  The alternative also failed to meet one of the project’s basic objectives.  As substantial evidence supported the finding that the alternative was not feasible, the First District concluded its inclusion in the Final EIR did not trigger recirculation.

The First District, therefore, reversed the trial court’s judgment against MMWD in its entirety.

Key Point:

Due to the substantial number of issues raised in this appeal, this decision is extremely helpful for lead agencies and project proponents. The decision helps to clarify the meaning and application of the substantial evidence standard of review in CEQA litigation. The decision also demonstrates that disagreements between a lead agency and other responsible and/or trustee agencies do not render an EIR inadequate. The decision further emphasizes that an EIR’s analysis of less than significant impacts need only be brief and a conclusion of less than significant may properly be supported by evidence outside the EIR and contained elsewhere in the administrative record. Finally, the decision supports the conclusion that 15% below 1990 GHG emissions by 2020 is an adequate significance threshold for analyzing GHG impacts.

Written By: Tina Thomas and Christopher Butcher

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