Fourth District Court of Appeal Upholds EIR for Groundwater Pumping Project

In Center for Biological Diversity v. County of San Bernardino (2016) 247 Cal.App.4th 326, the Fourth District upheld the Santa Margarita Water District’s certification of a final EIR and approval of a plan to pump groundwater in San Bernardino County. The court overturned the trial court’s ruling that Santa Margarita was not properly designated as the lead agency under CEQA and held that the EIR’s description of the project was sufficiently accurate.

The challenged project involved a plan  to construct 34 wells on property owned by Cadiz, Inc., to pump an average of 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year for 50 years, transport that water via pipeline to the Colorado River Aqueduct, and deliver that water to project participants, including Santa Margarita. San Bernardino County entered into an MOU with Santa Margarita, which designated Santa Margarita as the lead agency for CEQA purposes and tasked them with preparing the EIR.

The project opponents argued that Santa Margarita was not the proper lead agency under CEQA because San Bernardino County had to approve the project before pumping could begin. The Fourth District disagreed, stating that Santa Margarita was the proper lead agency under CEQA Guidelines section 15051, subdivisions (a), (b), or (d). San Bernardino had the most authority over the pumping, but Santa Margarita had greater responsibility over the project as a whole, which was to be partially carried out by a private party as well as Santa Margarita. Further, the MOU between San Bernardino and Santa Margarita was an agreement between the parties which designated Santa Margarita as the lead agency, which satisfied section 15051, subdivision (d).

The opponents also argued that the project description in the EIR was misleading and inaccurate, with regard to the description of the project objectives, the pumping, the time frame for pumping, and the total amount of water that would be extracted. The court held that the project’s fundamental purpose was to “save substantial quantities of groundwater,” and not just groundwater lost to evaporation, and thus the objectives were not misleading. As to the duration of the pumping phase of the project, the court found that the pumping could be “extended for a limited time” to fulfill the terms of the water delivery contracts, and that it could be extended to reach the total amount that can be extracted under the plan (2.5 million acre-feet). The court held, however, that extending the project beyond the 50 years would require a new agreement and additional environmental review, which would be too speculative to require at the outset. Lastly, the court found that the EIR’s description of the rate and total amount of groundwater withdrawal were sufficiently defined to not be misleading.