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CEQA Updates

Keeping You Up-to-Date on the California Environmental Quality Act

Posts Tagged ‘water supply’


Public Trust Doctrine Applies to Groundwater, Sustainable Groundwater Management Act Exists Concurrently with Common Law and Did Not “Occupy the Field”

Wednesday, August 29th, 2018

The Scott River appears to be dry sand in October of the 2014 California Drought.

In Environmental Law Foundation v. State Water Resources Control Board (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 844, the Third District Court of Appeal held that the public trust doctrine applies to groundwater basin management where groundwater may effect “navigable waters” and the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), Water Code section 10720 et seq., did not change this.

The parties stipulated to the facts and issues for the Court to address. The Scott River is a tributary of the Klamath River and a navigable waterway located in the northwest California. The Scott River has historically been used for water recreation and serves as habitat for salmon species listed in the Endangered Species Act. Groundwater aquifers adjacent to the Scott River in Siskiyou County (County) are hydrologically connected to the surface flows of the Scott River. Local farmers drilled groundwater wells and, in some summers and early fall months, the River was dewatered due to the groundwater pumping.

Environmental groups petitioned the County and the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to take administrative action to limit pumping in the Scott River watershed based on the public trust doctrine. When both refused, Environmental Law Foundation (ELF) filed suit.

ELF alleged that groundwater resources, which are interconnected with the surface water flows of the Scott River, are subject to and protected by the State’s public trust doctrine. The SWRCB reconsidered and adopted ELF’s position before the litigation concluded. The County claimed that it had no duty to limit groundwater pumping or consider its environmental impacts. The County further claimed that SGMA, which created a statewide system of groundwater management, was a comprehensive statutory scheme that displaced common law principles like the public trust doctrine. The trial court held that the public trust doctrine applies to groundwater in this case and SGMA did not effect this. The County timely appealed.

The Appellate Court, with Presiding Justice Raye writing for a unanimous Court, relied heavily on National Audubon Society v. Superior Court (1983) 33 Cal.3d 419 and held that groundwater in the Scott River Valley is subject to the public trust doctrine. In National Audubon, the Supreme Court held that the public trust doctrine fully applies to the State’s complex water rights system. Specifically, the City of Los Angeles’ diversion of water from the non-navigable, freshwater streams flowing into Mono Lake, which were reducing the lake level and causing environmental damage to the lake ecosystem, could be limited by state water regulators under the public trust doctrine. The Court held that the Scott River facts were analogous to those in National Audubon as the pumping was similarly effecting the water level of the river. However, there was a heightened duty to protect the Scott River where it is a navigable waterway. “The analysis begins and ends with whether the challenged activity harms a navigable waterway and thereby violate the public trust.” Accordingly, the Court concluded that the public trust doctrine fully applies to extractions of groundwater that effect a navigable waterway.

The Court then held that, by enacting the SGMA, the Legislature did not intend to “occupy the field” of groundwater management and thereby abolish the public trust doctrine. Definitively, the Court held, “the enactment of SGMA does not, as the County maintains, occupy the field, replace or fulfill public trust duties, or scuttle decades of decisions upholding, defending, and expanding the public trust doctrine.”

The Court affirmed the trial court’s decision.

Key Point:                                                            

The State and its legal subdivisions must concurrently consider public trust principles and the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in monitoring groundwater resources. Further, only where the Legislature intended to “occupy the field” will common law principles be superseded by Legislative acts.

Second District Court of Appeal Upholds Interlocutory Remand in Shopping Center Project Challenge, Clarifies General Plan Relationship with Projects

Monday, July 31st, 2017

Plans for the Corral de Tierra Neighborhood Retail Village (Hart Howerton)

In The Highway 68 Coalition v. County of Monterey (2017) 14 Cal.App.5th 883, the Sixth District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court and upheld the County’s approval of a shopping center proposed by Omni Resources LLC (“Omni”), known as the Corral de Tierra Neighborhood Retail Village (“Project”).

The Project, proposed for construction on eleven acres of land located at the intersection of Highway 68 and Corral de Tierra Road in Monterey County, consists of ten retail buildings, including a grocery store, a two-story office building, and other retail spaces for a sporting goods store, bank, florist, mail store, post office branch, or a barber/beauty salon.

After the Board of Supervisors certified an EIR and approved the project in February 2012, the plaintiff sued the County, alleging failure to comply with CEQA. The trial court rejected the plaintiff’s claims of CEQA violations, but issued an order of interlocutory remand to allow the County to clarify whether the Project was consistent with the County’s general plan requirement that the Project have a long-term, sustainable water supply.

On remand, the Board adopted a resolution finding that the Project was consistent with the County’s general plan. In March 2015, the plaintiff filed its opening brief, contending that the County violated both CEQA and procedural due process during the remand proceedings. In 2015, the trial court again held for the County and Omni.

In the published portion of the opinion, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the trial court erred in issuing an interlocutory remand. According to plaintiff, where an agency abused its discretion, the only allowable procedure, as provided by Public Resources Code (“PRC”) section 21168.9, was an order compelling compliance with CEQA. The court found that the mandate procedures in PRC section 21168.9 did not apply because the issue of whether a proposed project was consistent with a county’s general plan was not a CEQA issue. Citing Voices of the Wetlands v. State Water Resources Control Board (2011) 52 Cal.4th 499, the court concluded that the trial court’s choice to issue an interlocutory remand was eminently practical and well within the court’s inherent power. Because there was a single, discrete non-CEQA issue of general plan consistency that required clarification before the County’s approval of the Project could be upheld, the court concluded interlocutory remand was proper in this case.

The court rejected the plaintiff’s contention that the EIR failed to analyze whether the project was consistent with the County’s 2010 general plan. The court found that, although CEQA requires an analysis of general plan inconsistency, CEQA does not require an analysis of general plan consistency. The court also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the County’s finding on interlocutory remand that the project was consistent with the County’s general plan and had a long-term sustainable water supply was not supported by substantial evidence.

Key Point:

The Sixth District Court of Appeal found that PRC section 21168.9 addresses CEQA issues, and is not applicable to an inquiry into whether or not a proposed project is consistent with a county’s general plan. The Court also held that interlocutory remand is proper where there is a single, discrete, non-CEQA issue of general plan consistency that the trial court determined required clarification before approval of a proposed project.