Court Finds EIR for Water Plan to Alter Kern River Allocations Deficient Under CEQA

A Ventura County Superior Court judge held that the EIR for a water plan that would alter historic usage of Kern River water is inadequate and must be redrafted and recirculated as a focused EIR. The ruling marks the latest legal development in a longstanding dispute over Kern River flows.

At issue in the case was the Kern River Water Allocation Plan proposed by the Kern Delta Water Storage District. The plan calls for diverting about 33,000 acre-feet per year from the Kern River that historically have been released to junior water rights holders, including the North Kern Water Storage District and the City of Bakersfield. The Kern Delta district has sought to provide these “release waters” to other users. In litigation over the years, the North Kern district and Bakersfield have argued that the Kern Delta district forfeited portions of its appropriative water rights due to nonuse (i.e. due to the longstanding releases).

The EIR for the plan concluded that the Kern Delta district’s retention and diversion of the 33,000 acre-feet per year of water would cause no significant and unavoidable environmental impacts. The EIR acknowledged that groundwater levels would decline in the North Kern district service area between two to three feet and that some areas near recharge basins could experience water level decreases of up to 12 feet. The EIR concluded, however, that any immediate impacts to ranches, farms, and urban needs would “equilibrate” over time because the release of water to points south of the river in the Kern Delta district would benefit the large subbasin (known as the Kern River Fan) underlying the entire region.

The Kern Delta district’s board certified a final EIR for the plan in September 2012. The North Kern district, along with two other water agencies and the city of Shafter, sued, claiming multiple CEQA violations as well as violation of a prior injunction order. The petitioning water agencies’ counsel included James G. Moose, senior partner at Remy Moose Manley, LLP. The city of Bakersfield sued on similar grounds.

In his ruling (North Kern Water Storage District v. Kern Delta Water Storage District, June 5, 2014, Case No.: 56-2012-00425941-CU-WM-VTA), Ventura County Superior Court Judge Glen M. Reiser provided an extensive discussion of California’s water rights system and the complex history behind present-day allocations of Kern River water. The opinion is lengthy and sprinkled with literary passages from the Book of Proverbs, Leonardo da Vinci, and others.

The judge agreed with the petitioners that under CEQA, the EIR’s analysis of off-site impacts to groundwater was “opinion unsupported by any substantial evidence.” In particular, the court noted that the EIR lacked adequate “temporal context” involving timing, water levels, and water volumes to support its assertion that the Kern Fan would, at some point, “equilibrate.” The court also found the EIR’s analysis of land subsidence and cumulative losses of surface waters beyond the Kern Delta district’s boundaries to be inadequate.

The court issued a peremptory writ of mandate setting aside the final EIR’s certification and orderering the Kern Delta district to redraft and recirculate a supplemental “focused” EIR. The supplemental focused EIR must incorporate nine requirements aimed at adequately analyzing project-related impacts, including quantifying “equilibration” as it relates to the timing of aquifer recharge under the plan to divert 33,000 acre feet per year of water to users south of the Kern River.