Against the backdrop of another severe drought, water supply and impact issues continue to be points of contention for water agencies, water users, conservation groups, and the state.  And, of course, litigation over water is not limited to water rights and usage, but extends to related environmental review under CEQA.  On September 22, 2021, the Third District Court of Appeal issued a published opinion in Central Delta Water Agency v. Department of Water Resources (2021) __ Cal.App.5th __, disposing of several consolidated cases and analyzing operation of the state’s massive State Water Project (SWP) through a CEQA lens.  While the case does not break any new legal ground, it applies well-recognized CEQA principles to a lengthy and complex fact pattern involving multiple rounds of lengthy litigation, settlement, and EIR preparation.

Continue Reading Third District Affirms CEQA And Attorneys’ Fees Judgments In Favor Of Department Of Water Resources In Monterey Agreement And Amendment Litigation

In a published decision filed August 17, 2021, the Fifth District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment directing issuance of a writ of mandate ordering Inyo County to vacate three resolutions of necessity that authorized its condemnation of three Owens Valley landfill properties, including appurtenant water rights, owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP).  City of Los Angeles etc. v. County of Inyo (2021) __ Cal.App.5th__. The County operates three landfills on the properties pursuant to leases from LADWP.  In the published part of the opinion, the Court of Appeal held that CEQA’s issue exhaustion requirement did not apply to LADWP’s challenge to the County’s exemption determinations because the County failed to provide adequate notice of them, thus depriving LADWP of an opportunity to be heard on the issue.  As a matter of law, the Court also held the County improperly relied on the existing facilities exemption for the project.

Continue Reading Fifth District Holds Issue Exhaustion Not Required Where Agency Gave No Notice of Intent To Rely On CEQA Exemption Prior to Hearing, And Existing Facilities Categorical Exemption Does Not Apply to Unlined Landfills As A Matter of Law

In a lengthy opinion filed April 8, and ordered published on May 7, 2021, the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment rejecting a number of CEQA challenges to the California State Land Commission’s (Lands Commission) supplemental EIR for and related approval of a lease modification to facilitate a desalination plant in Huntington Beach.  California Coastkeeper Alliance v. State Lands Commission (Poseidon Resources (Surfside) LLC, Real Party in Interest) (2021) ___ Cal.App.5th ___.  In holding that the Commission properly elected to prepare a supplemental (rather than subsequent) EIR, did not err in refusing to assume lead agency status, and did not unlawfully piecemeal environmental review, the Court provided guidance on a number of significant CEQA issues.

Continue Reading Third District Affirms Judgment Upholding State Lands Commission’s Supplemental EIR For Desalination Plant Lease Modification, Rejects CEQA Claims That Commission Piecemealed Review And Should Have Assumed Lead Agency Status And Prepared A Subsequent EIR

In an 85-page opinion filed March 25, and modified and certified for partial publication on April 23, 2021, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed the Napa County Superior Court’s judgment denying a writ petition challenging the County’s EIR and approvals for an expansion of Syar Industries, Inc.’s (Syar) aggregate mining operations at a quarry that has existed since the 1800s.  Stop Syar Expansion v. County of Napa (1st Dist. 2021) ____ Cal.App.5th ____.  The Court belatedly published about 25 pages of its lengthy opinion, which portions addressed basic CEQA principles, including standard of review and exhaustion principles, and the interplay of CEQA and general plan consistency issues.

Continue Reading First District Affirms Judgment Rejecting CEQA and General Plan Consistency Challenges to Napa County’s EIR for Syar Quarry Expansion Project, Addresses Significant Exhaustion and Land Use Issues

As we rapidly approach the end of a year of COVID-related challenges and uncertainties, CEQA practitioners may want to review the year’s key legislation impacting CEQA and its application, which was contained in the handful of bills summarized below.

  • AB 168 (Aguilar-Curry). This urgency legislation became effective with the Governor’s signature on September 25, 2020.  It amends Government Code §§ 65400, 65913.4 and 65941.1 to correct an “oversight” in SB 35 (Weiner), namely, that 2017 law’s failure to consider potential destruction of tribal cultural resources as a result of the streamlined, ministerial (and thus CEQA-exempt) approval process it authorized for multifamily housing development projects satisfying specified objective planning standards.  (SB 35 is summarized in detail in my 12/7/17 blog post, which can be found here.)


Continue Reading 2020 CEQA Legislative Developments

In a 74-page opinion filed February 24, and later ordered published on March 17, 2020, the Second District Court of Appeal (Division 7) affirmed judgments (granting the writ petition and awarding fees) in coordinated appeals stemming from a CEQA action successfully challenging the City of Agoura Hills’ (City) project approvals and mitigated negative declaration (MND) for a mixed use development project on an undeveloped 8.2 acre parcel.  Save the Agoura Cornell Knoll v. City of Agoura Hills (Doron Gelfand, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (2020) 46 Cal.App.5th 665.  The Court rejected the City’s and Real Parties’ procedural arguments that Petitioners and Respondents Save the Agoura Cornell Knoll (STACK) and California Native Plant Society (CNPS) had failed to exhaust administrative remedies, and that their claims were barred by lack of standing and the statute of limitations; on the merits of the CEQA claim, it held that substantial evidence in the record supported a fair argument that even as mitigated the project may have significant impacts on cultural resources (i.e., a Chumash Native American archaeological site), three sensitive plant species, native oak trees, and aesthetic resources, and that an EIR was therefore required; and it further held the trial court properly granted writ relief based on the City’s violation of its own Oak Tree Ordinance by approving a project that would concededly remove 35 to 36 percent of the site’s oak tree canopy when the Ordinance prohibited removal of more than 10 percent.  Finally, the Court held that the trial court properly awarded Petitioners STACK and CNPS $142,148 in attorneys’ fees under Code of Civil Procedure § 1021.5, made payable 50% by City and 50% by Real Parties, notwithstanding that Petitioners furnished their first amended petition to the Attorney General (AG) beyond the 10-day statutory period for doing so.

Continue Reading Second District Affirms Judgment Invalidating City of Agoura Hills’ Mixed-Use Project Approvals and Related MND Based On CEQA and Local Oak Tree Ordinance Violations

In a partially-published, 150-page slip opinion resolving appeals in consolidated cases, and filed February 25, 2020, the Fifth District Court of Appeal affirmed in part and reversed in part a trial court decision finding CEQA defects in the 1800-plus page EIR prepared for Kern County’s adoption of an ordinance designed to provide a streamlined, ministerial permitting process for new oil and gas wells in the county.  King and Gardiner Farms, LLC v. County of Kern, et al. (California Independent Petroleum Association, et al., Real Parties in Interest); Committee for a Better Arvin, et al. v. County of Kern, et al. (California Independent Petroleum Association, et al., Real Parties in Interest) (5th Dist. 2020) 45 Cal.App.5th 814.  The published portion of the opinion held the EIR improperly deferred the formulation and implementation of mitigation for significant water supply impacts; failed to adequately mitigate farmland conversion impacts due to improper reliance on agricultural conversion easements (ACEs) as offsetting mitigation; and failed to adequately analyze noise impacts by relying solely on an absolute cumulative numerical limit threshold of significance, rather than also analyzing the significance of the magnitude of project noise increases over ambient levels in differently affected settings.  (Approximately 53 pages of the opinion, a portion finding CEQA violations with respect to air quality and related health risks due to failure to adequately discuss PM 2.5 emissions impacts and related mitigation, and failure to recirculate the DEIR after adding significant new information in the form of an appended Cumulative Health Risk Assessment, were not certified for publication; consequently, those portions set no precedent and will not be discussed in further detail in this post.)

Continue Reading Fifth District Holds EIR For Kern County’s Ministerial Oil and Gas Well Permitting Ordinance Violates CEQA Due To Improperly Deferred Mitigation For Water Supply Impacts, Inadequate Mitigation For Farmland Conversion, And Inadequate Analysis of Noise Impacts

In an opinion filed September 6, and later ordered published on October 7, 2019, the First District Court of Appeal (Div. 4) affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying plaintiff groups’ writ petition challenging Sonoma County’s use permit and related mitigated negative declaration (MND) for a winery project in the County’s rural Knights Valley area.  Maacama Watershed Alliance, et al v. County of Sonoma, et al. (James Bailey, Knights Bridge Vineyards, LLC, Real Parties in Interest) (2019) 40 Cal.App.5th 1007.

Continue Reading First District Affirms Judgment Upholding MND for Rural Sonoma County Winery Project, Holds Unsubstantiated Expert Opinion Fails to Support Fair Argument of Geologic, Erosion Or Groundwater Impacts

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) issues licenses needed to construct and operate hydroelectric dams pursuant to the Federal Power Act (“FPA”; 16 U.S.C. § 791a, et seq).  Under long-standing law, and with the limited exception of state-issued water quality certifications, the FPA “occupies the field” of licensing a hydroelectric dam, and bars environmental review of the federal licensing procedure in state courts; this preemption is necessary because recognizing a “dual final authority” for such projects would be “unworkable.”  (First Iowa Hydro-Electric Cooperative v. Federal Power Com. (1946) 328 U.S. 152.)  States have limited authority under the Clean Water Act (33 U.S.C. § 1341) to impose stricter water quality conditions than are federally required on a FERC license, through the section 401 water quality certification process, but must act on a project applicant’s certification request within one year or certification is deemed waived.  (33 U.S.C. § 401(a)(1); Alcoa Power Generating Inc. v. FERC (D.C. Cir. 2011) 643 F.3d 963, 972.)  Further, any disputes concerning the Federal licensing process or the adequacy of “required studies” for that process (including “environmental studies” serving as the predicate for the state’s water quality certification conditions) are subject to FERC’s review.  (18 C.F.R. part 4, 34(i)(b)(vii) (2003).)

Continue Reading State Courts Lack Jurisdiction Over CEQA Challenge To Matters Within FERC’s Jurisdiction In Hydroelectric Dam Relicensure Process For Oroville Dam Facilities