SECOND DISTRICT FINDS QUANTIFICATION OF EXISTING WATER RIGHTS NOT REQUIRED UNDER CEQA FOR WATER DIVERSION AND STORAGE PROJECT

On March 3, 2022, the Second District Court of Appeal ordered published its decision in Buena Vista Water Storage District v. Kern Water Bank Authority (Feb. 23, 2022) 76 Cal.App.5th 576, in which the court held that an EIR for a project to divert and store unappropriated flood flows need not quantify all existing water rights. The court also held that CEQA does not require the project description to specify the exact amount of water that would be diverted, since that amount will vary from year to year based on the weather. Additionally, the court held that substantial evidence supported the EIR’s conclusion that the project would not adversely affect the long-term recovery of the groundwater basin in which it is located, as the project would cause a net benefit to the aquifer.

Factual & Procedural Background

Although the Kern River had been designated a fully appropriated stream for many years—such that only those who held an appropriative right could divert from it—in 2010, the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) found that in certain wet years, Kern River water was available in excess of the amount appropriated. In particular, following construction of the Kern River-California Aqueduct Intertie in 1977, the Kern River water master began occasionally releasing reservoir water into the intertie to alleviate flooding. This release only occurs when flows are in excess of those held by existing water rights holders. The SWRCB concluded that this flood-released water was unappropriated and stated that it would allow applications to appropriate that water.

Respondent, the Kern Water Bank Authority, thereafter filed an application with the SWRCB seeking a permit for a water right to divert and store up to 500,000 acre-feet-per-year of the unappropriated water. The Authority also certified an EIR for the project. Buena Vista Water Storage District filed a petition for writ of mandate, seeking to set aside the Authority’s certification of the EIR and its approval of the project.

The trial court granted Buena Vista Water Storage District’s writ petition, holding: (1) the EIR’s project description was inadequate because it did not quantify existing water rights and it was unstable; (2) the EIR’s discussion of the existing baseline was inadequate because it did not quantify competing existing rights to Kern River water; and (3) the EIR’s impact analysis was inadequate because it did not adequately assess impacts on senior rights holders and impacts on groundwater during long-term recovery operations. The Court of Appeal reversed, concluding that the EIR complied with CEQA.

The Court of Appeal’s Opinion

The EIR’s Project Description is Accurate and Stable

Unlike the trial court, the Second District Court of Appeal held that the EIR’s project description is adequate under CEQA. As explained by the court, the EIR consistently and adequately describes the project as “‘high flow Kern River water, only available under certain hydrologic conditions and after the rights of senior Kern River water right holders have been met, that otherwise would have (1) been diverted to the Intertie, (2) flooded farmlands, or (3) left Kern County.’”

Buena Vista Water Storage District argued that the EIR’s project description is unstable because it relies on an “open-ended limit of ‘up to 500,000 [acre-feet] of water.” The court rejected this argument, explaining that a precise amount of water to be diverted by the project cannot be determined because water availability will fluctuate from year to year. As stated by the court: “A project description may use a flexible parameter when subject to future changing conditions.” Furthermore, the proposed 500,000 acre-foot-per-year is a finite maximum amount based on historical conditions, thus providing an adequate upper-end of the proposed diversion.

EIR Not Required to Quantify Existing Water Rights

The appellate court also rejected the District’s contention that the EIR’s project description must include a quantification of existing Kern River rights. That amount of detail is not necessary under CEQA Guidelines section 15124, subdivision (c), which requires a “general description” of the project’s technical and environmental characteristics. Moreover, a stream-wide quantification is a complex proceeding conducted by the SWRCB or a court and can take several years (or even decades) to complete. CEQA does not require this type of exhaustive detail.

Similarly, the EIR’s description of the existing environmental setting is not required to include a quantification of the existing Kern River water rights. The EIR satisfies CEQA’s informational requirements by providing measurements of Kern River water historically diverted into the Kern Water Basin and estimating, based on these historic records, how much water the Kern River Bank Authority could have diverted from the basin under baseline conditions. A complete quantification of existing water rights was not necessary to provide these estimates.

Finally, the court found it was clear that existing rights would not be impacted because the SWRCB cannot issue a new permit to divert water that is already subject to existing water rights. Further, the SWRCB expressly allowed processing of water rights applications, like the one at issue, in its Order finding that the water diverted to the Intertie was not fully appropriated. Quantification of the existing water rights was not necessary to evaluate the project’s impacts.

Substantial Evidence Supports the EIR’s Conclusions Regarding Groundwater Impacts

According to the trial court, the project would alter groundwater recovery by making groundwater available for long-term pumping for additional months or years during drought conditions, which, in the trial court’s view, would likely deplete groundwater during a drought. The Second District rejected the lower court’s analysis as factually inaccurate. The purpose of the project is to add to groundwater supplies and increase the availability of groundwater storage. The EIR concludes that the project would raise the local groundwater, resulting in a net increase in aquifer volume. Additionally, the Kern Water Bank Authority’s existing groundwater and monitoring policies will ensure that banking additional groundwater will not lower groundwater tables or affect the production rate of existing wells. Thus, substantial evidence supports the EIR’s conclusion that the project’s groundwater impacts will not be significant.

Conclusions & Implications

The Second District’s decision addresses whether an EIR for a water diversion and storage project must quantify the existing water rights to the underlying waterbody. In holding that such quantification is not required for the Kern Water Bank Authority’s proposed water diversion project, the Court of Appeal adhered to the principle that CEQA does not require an exhaustive analysis, but rather a good faith and reasonable effort at full disclosure. The decision also recognizes that for certain types of projects, particularly those involving water supplies, a project description must be somewhat flexible. The decision illustrates how a court reviewing an EIR must defer to the lead agency’s factual analyses and conclusions—deference that the trial court had failed to give to the Kern Water Bank Authority’s determinations.

– Laura Harris Middleton