A proposal to pump fresh groundwater from an underground aquifer located in the Mojave Desert (“Project”) resulted in six related cases. On May 10, 2016, the Fourth Appellate District upheld the Project in all six cases: Delaware Tetra Technologies, Inc. v. County of San Bernardino, 2016 Cal. App. Lexis 380, 2016 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 3434, 2016 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 3438, 2016 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 3439, and Center for Biological Diversity v. County of San Bernardino, 2016 Cal. App. Lexis 382 and 2016 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 3441.
The proposed Project is a public/private partnership designed to prevent water waste caused by brine and evaporation, and to ultimately transport water to customers in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ventura Counties. Once in operation, the Project would appropriate an average of 50,000 acre feet of groundwater over a period of 50 years. The groundwater extraction would be subject to the County’s 2002 Groundwater Ordinance, which was designed to ensure that groundwater extractions maintain safe yield of affected aquifers.
In March 2011, the Santa Margarita Water District (“Santa Margarita”) posted a notice of preparation of a draft Environmental Impact Report (“EIR”) for the Project. Under a June 2011 agreement, Santa Margarita agreed to act as the lead agency and San Bernardino County (“County”) agreed to act as a responsible agency. The Draft EIR was released for public review and comment in December 2012. During the EIR process, Santa Margarita, the County, the landowner, and Fenner Valley executed a memorandum of understanding (“MOU”) in which the parties agreed that a groundwater management, monitoring and mitigation plan would be developed in connection with the finalization of the EIR. The Final EIR was certified in July 2012.
Delaware Tetra Technologies
In the first published case, Delaware Tetra Technologies, Inc. challenged the County’s resolution authorizing the execution of the 2012 MOU, arguing that the County should have completed an environmental review under CEQA prior to approving the MOU.
Applying the de novo standard of review, the Court concluded that environmental review was not required because establishing a groundwater management, monitoring and mitigation plan under the MOU would not cause a direct, or a reasonably foreseeable indirect, physical change in the environment. Moreover, the MOU did not foreclose alternatives or mitigation measures, nor commit the County to a particular course of action that would cause an environmental impact. Rather, the MOU established that the County still retained full discretion.
Center for Biological Diversity
In the second published case, the Center for Biological Diversity, the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society, Sierra Club, and National Parks Conservation Association (collectively, “CBD”) filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the approval of the Project under CEQA. The Court concluded that Santa Margarita did not abuse its direction when it approved the Project and certified the EIR.
The court first held that Santa Margarita was properly designated as a lead agency because it was jointly undertaking the Project with the landowner and because it was the agency with the principal authority to approve and supervise the Project. Next, the Court held that the Project description, which characterized the Project as “a means of conserving water,” was not misleading because the Project would conserve water otherwise lost to brine and evaporation.
Finally, the Court rejected CBD’s contentions that the EIR did not provide an accurate duration for pumping by the Project and would result in more water being withdrawn than was contemplated and discussed by the EIR. Although the EIR recognized that the parties may choose to extend pumping for an additional term after the stated completion date of the Project, the Court found that the additional term was not reasonably foreseeable and noted that any additional term would require additional environmental review. The court further noted that the EIR did not permit withdrawal of water in excess of the amounts identified.
In holding that the MOU was not a “project,” the Court reaffirmed the principles of Save Tara v. City of West Hollywood (2008) 45 Cal.4th 116 regarding when an activity constitutes a “project” subject to environmental review. Memoranda of Understanding will not require environmental review under CEQA where they do not commit a lead agency to a particular course of action, foreclose alternatives or mitigation measures, or result in environmental impacts.
In addition, the Court reaffirmed in several different contexts that a court’s role is not to “pass upon the correctness of the EIR’s environmental conclusions, but only upon its sufficiency as an informative document.” Petitioners bear the burden of describing the lead agency’s supporting evidence and showing how it is lacking.