CEQA exemptions are needed during drought

On May 5, Sierra Club California (SCC) again rejoiced at staving off necessary changes in the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and announced its success.

It observed that CEQA “has served for over 45 years to shield California’s environment, ensuring project-by-project consideration of environmental impacts, and requiring mitigation for those impacts. This important tool keeps the public informed and allows them a say about proposed changes in their communities.”

SCC stated proudly that, “fortunately, all eight of the bills were pulled from committee agendas or otherwise failed on committee votes. For the moment, CEQA protections remain intact.”

Thus, enshrined procedural delay was again preserved against change, even as greenhouse-gas induced physical changes are rapidly altering circumstances on the ground and enhancing and prolonging California’s drought to an extent even SCC cannot seem to truly appreciate.

The polite notion of civilization “adapting” to climate change has finally met the reality that global-warming induced changes are going to hit fast, hard and in irrevocable ways. The Age of Misery is upon us and adapting requires massive action on the ground and big changes in infrastructure. Changes must be timely to be effective.

California’s prolonged drought and stalled water projects have combined into an active emergency requiring quick action, far more rapid than will occur if the rigors of CEQA are applied to each water project, especially given the many “options” and multiyear studies that will be required before one tablespoon of dirt is turned.

Wary of the governor’s plans to solve some of California’s water supply issues using, inter alia, large pipes or tunnels to convey water, SCC is rallying its opposing troops.

On May 29, SCC attacked proposed Trailer Bill 831, explaining:

“Now Governor Brown wants to use the drought as an excuse to give himself free reign to exempt whatever project he wants from CEQA's public review.”

“Don't let the Governor get his way. Help oppose Trailer Bill 831, which creates a broad CEQA exemption for whatever the Governor wants. Urge Senate and Assembly budget leadership to prevent this language from getting into the budget.”

“This trailer bill will create a large policy shift — without public discourse — and allow for CEQA exemptions for projects that do nothing to help with drought relief.”

As a budget bill, Trailer Bill 831 is admittedly obscure, but here’s a brief overview.

The Legislative Counsel’s Digest of Trailer Bill 831 observes “the California Emergency Services Act authorized the Governor, during a state of emergency, to issue a proclamation of a state of emergency and to suspend any regulatory statute where the Governor determines and declares that strict compliance with the status would prevent, hinder, or delay the mitigation of the effects of the emergency.”

It goes on to explain that Trailer Bill 831 “would, for the duration of a state of emergency proclaimed by the Governor due to drought conditions, exempt from the requirements of CEQA certain projects that are undertaken, carried out, or approved by a public agency to mitigate those drought conditions.”

The actual proposed legislative language of Trailer Bill 831 states the exemption applies to projects to do any of the following:

“(1) Connect existing residential users facing critical water shortages to community water systems.

“(2) Provide interconnection between existing community water systems to improve drought resilience for existing residential users.

“(3) Involve the construction or expansion of stormwater infiltration or recycled water treatment facilities.

“(4) Involve the construction or expansion of recycled water distribution infrastructure within existing rights of way.

“(5) Implement specific directives for which the Governor, in the proclamation, of a state of emergency, has suspended compliance with this division pursuant to Section 8571 of the Government Code.”

This proposed approach would bypass years of delays and bickering, legal and otherwise. It would do away with legalized kibitzing as a profitable sport for some environmental groups, as has been the established pattern in a great many projects subject to CEQA in recent history.

A textbook example of manufactured delays is the Sunrise Powerlink transmission line. The various predicted environmental catastrophes never arose, but its great benefits were delayed for many years while costs were driven vastly higher. Shall we repeat this with necessary water projects?

It seems SCC and all Californians must now face a choice: adapt timely and let things be improved, or delay as per the usual while people wait for water.

Here’s the harsh reality. Global warming and its adverse physical consequences are real. Adverse changes are accelerating. No matter what schemes, plans or alternatives might be proposed during years of debate and grandiose CEQA studies, the amount of delay will be substantial, leaving real problems enlarged and unsolved.

Only changes on the ground will provide water where it’s needed. Despite some political risks, the exemptions in Trailer Bill 831 should be made law.

Coffey is an attorney based in San Diego. He can be reached at Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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