In a February 16, 2022 decision, the Third District Court of Appeal in Save the El Dorado Canal v. El Dorado Irrigation District (2022) 75 Cal.App.5th 239, upheld the District’s approval of the Blair Road Alternative for the Upper Main Ditch piping project by finding that substantial evidence supported the District’s determination that the project and alternative would have less-than-significant impacts, and rejected petitioner challenges to the EIR’s project description, hydrological, biological, and wildfire impact analyses.
The El Dorado Irrigation District operates a primarily surface-water system in El Dorado County, with more than 1,250 miles of pipe and 27 miles of earthen ditches that connect the system’s facilities and treatment plants. The Upper Main Ditch (UMD) is the system’s main conveyance feature consisting of a three-mile open and unlined ditch that connects the system’s Forebay Reservoir to its Reservoir 1 Water Treatment Plant (WTP). In June 2015, the District proposed to convert the UMD to a buried 42-inch pipeline that spanned the length of the existing ditch. The upstream end of the new pipeline would connect to the Reservoir and the downstream end would connect to a new metering and inlet structure at the WTP. The District would backfill around the pipe and reshape the ditch to allow for the passage of stormwater flows up to the current 10-year storm event capacity. Ultimately, the project would conserve more water by reducing seepage and evaporation, and improve water quality by reducing contaminant infiltration.
The District considered three alternatives, and ultimately approved the Blair Road Alternative, which would also convert the UMD into a buried pipeline but would instead place the pipe across District-owned property from the Reservoir to Blair Road, where it would continue until it reached the UMD crossing, then travel across private property to the WTP. The Blair Road Alternative would involve less construction activity near residents that the project and require the removal of fewer trees. It would also reduce the number of easements across private property.
In June 2018, the District circulated the draft EIR, which described the location of the UMD and the Blair Road Alternative’s setting and noted that, should it be adopted, the District would no longer use the existing ditch—instead reverting the land back to private landowners. After an extended public comment period, the District issued the final EIR in January 2019. After which, in April 2019, the Board of Directors certified the final EIR and approved the Blair Road Alternative. The Boar determined that, although the original project would achieve the desired objectives, it would have greater potential impacts to residents along the ditch from the resulting construction and eminent domain proceedings than the Alternative.
Thereafter, Save the El Dorado Canal filed a petition for writ of mandate alleging the approval and certification violated CEQA. The trial court denied each of Petitioner’s ten contentions. Petitioner timely appealed.
The Court of Appeal’s Decision
On appeal, Petitioner re-alleged that the action violated CEQA because the EIR contained an inaccurate project description and failed to adequately analyze potential impacts to hydrology, biological resources, and wildfire hazards. Under an abuse of discretion standard, the Third District Court of Appeal rejected each claim, finding that substantial evidence supported the District’s determination and Petitioner failed to demonstrate otherwise.
Petitioner first alleged the EIR failed to adequately describe the project by omitting the “crucial fact” that the ditch that would soon be abandoned was the “only drainage system” for the watershed. Notwithstanding Petitioner’s “problematic” briefing errors, the court rejected this argument and found instead that the EIR provided a detailed description of the UMD’s size, history, and location, and explained how the UMD passively intercepts stormwater runoff that would otherwise naturally flow down slope. For the Blair Road Alternative, the EIR explained that the ditch would continue to passively receive and convey stormwater flows during storm events, even after the District abandoned its maintenance easement over it. The court concluded this was an adequate, complete, and good faith effort at full disclosure about the ditch and its relationship to the watershed’s drainage system, as well as the District’s intent to abandon the ditch should it adopt the Blair Road Alternative.
Petitioner then claimed the EIR inappropriately concluded that the Blair Road Alternative would not significantly impact watershed drainage because abandonment would permit “the underlying property owners to do with [the ditch] as they please.” Citing a comment letter submitted by the County, Petitioner claimed the EIR failed to mitigate foreseeable impacts to watershed drainage that would result from vegetation and debris clogging the abandoned ditch. The court disagreed. It found that the final EIR’s response explained that private action or inaction will ensure the abandoned ditch retains its current capacity to convey stormwater across private property thereby reducing any risk of significant flooding. Moreover, unlike the District, the County can regulate private fill activities via administrative and civil penalties to ensure such activities do not yield significant environmental effects. Thus, it would be too speculative to predict landowners’ particular actions or inactions and the ensuing potential effects to the ditch’s stormwater conveyance capacity.
Petitioner next alleged the EIR failed to mitigate impacts to riparian habitats and sensitive natural communities and conflicted with local resource protection ordinances. The court noted that the Blair Road Alternative would yield fewer potential impacts to biological resources because the pipeline would be laid in an existing road corridor that is devoid of natural riparian habitat. Because the affected waterbody is not naturally occurring, plant and wildlife species are not dependent on water in the current ditch. Nevertheless, any impacts to vegetation communities—including those resulting from tree removal—would be mitigated to less than significant levels through permit compliance. The Alternative would therefore be consistent with the General Plan’s biological resources management plan, the County’s tree mortality removal plan, and CALFIRE’s tree removal procedures.
The court was also unpersuaded by Petitioner’s claim that the EIR failed to adequately analyze and mitigate impacts to tree mortality. Relying on facts and expert opinion, the EIR explained that trees surrounding the project site are not native riparian species, and thus, not dependent on water conveyed through the ditch. To the contrary, most of the adjacent tree species are stress-tolerant and can withstand climatic variation and changes in water seepage. The court also found that because both the project and Alternative were specifically designed to avoid Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS), and that, in any event, mitigation would alleviate any impacts, regulatory requirements associated with WOTUS were met.
Lastly, the court rejected Petitioner’s contention that the EIR failed to adequately consider the project’s fire risks by only considering construction-related impacts. Petitioner asserted the project would have potentially significant impacts by removing a water source that could be used as a firefighting tool. The court disagreed by noting that the EIR specifically debunked Petitioner’s claim—the ditch supplies potable drinking water only, and water from the ditch has never been used to fight fires. Indeed, CAL FIRE’s Strategic Fire Plan did not identify the UMD as a potential firefighting resource.
– Bridget McDonald