U.S. Dept. of Justice and Dept. of Interior Sue California Water Board over CEQA Violations

By on March 31, 2019

Civil actions were filed in both federal and state court on Thursday by the Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) against the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) for failing to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). At issue is the adopted amendments to the Water Quality Control Plan for the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta Estuary and the related Substitute Environmental Document (SED) the SWRCB approved last December.

The lawsuit alleges that the state water board’s amended plan fails to comply with CEQA and the United States will be directly and substantially impacted by the Board’s actions. If implement the state’s plan is alleged to impair DOI’s ability to operate the New Melones Dam consistent with Congressional directives for the project. Impacts are said to include, but are not limited to, operational constraints on the New Melones Project, loss of available surface water supplies for New Melones Project purposes, including Central Valley Project (CVP) water service contracts, and involuntary dedication of federal reservoir space for Board purposes.

“The environmental analysis by the California State Water Resources Control Board hid the true impacts of their plan and could put substantial operational constraints on the Department of the Interior’s ability to effectively operate the New Melones Dam, which plays a critical role in flood control, irrigation, and power generation in the Sacramento region,” said Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark for the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The Department of Justice will continue to advocate on behalf of our federal partners, especially when it comes to the proper application of federal and state environmental laws.”

New Melones Dam is a federally owned Reclamation facility and a component of the federal CVP. Water is stored in the dam under California permits and then delivers water under contracts entered into under federal reclamation law from storage to various irrigation and water districts. CEQA is the California statute requiring state and local agencies to identify the significant environmental impacts of their actions and to avoid or mitigate those impacts, if practical and reasonable.

The Department of Justice and DOI contends that in approving the amended plan and final SED, the State Water Board failed to comply with various CEQA requirements including:

  • The Board failed to provide an accurate, stable and finite project description, because the Board analyzed a project materially different from the project described in the project description;
  • The Board improperly masked potential environmental impacts of the amended plan by including carryover storage targets and other reservoir controls – mitigation measures – in its impacts analysis and by not analyzing the impacts of the amended plan on the environment without reservoir controls; and
  • The Board failed to adequately analyze the impacts of the amended plan, including with respect to water temperature and related water quality conditions, and water supply.

“As stated in our letter to the Board on July 27, 2018, today’s lawsuit affirms the Bureau of Reclamation’s continued opposition to the State Water Board plan. The plan poses an unacceptable risk to Reclamation’s water storage and power generation capabilities at the New Melones Project in California and to local recreational opportunities,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman. “We pledge our commitment to environmentally and economically sound water management for California’s farms, families, business, and natural resources, and the American public as a whole.”