In Los Angeles Waterkeeper v. State Water Resources Control Board (2023) 88 Cal.App.5th 874, rehearing granted March 27, 2023, the Second District Court of Appeal held that the Regional Water Quality Control Board does not have a duty to evaluate whether discharges of treated wastewater are an unreasonable use of water under article X, section 2 of the California Constitution and Water Code sections 100 and 275. The court also held that under CEQA, Regional Water Quality Control Boards are not required make findings of significance under Public Resources Code section 21002 when issuing wastewater discharge permits, which are exempt from CEQA pursuant to Water Code section 13389.
The Regional Board renewed permits allowing four publicly owned treatment works (POTWs) to discharge millions of gallons of treated wastewater daily into the Los Angeles River and Pacific Ocean.
Petitioner requested review of the permits to the State Water Resources Control Board, which declined review. Petitioner then filed petitions for writs of mandate against the State Board and the Regional Board (collectively, the Boards), claiming violations of the Water Code and CEQA.
The Boards demurred to the petitions. The trial court sustained the demurrer as to the Regional Board, but overruled the demurrer as to the State Board, finding that the State Board had a constitutional and statutory duty to prevent the waste of water. The trial court also ruled that the Regional Board did not have to comply with CEQA when issuing wastewater discharge permits, pursuant to an exemption under the Water Code.
The trial court held that the State Board failed to fulfill its duty with regard to the four POTWs and accordingly issued four judgments and four writs of mandate against the State Board. The State Board appealed the four judgments. Real Party in Interest appealed the judgment against the State Board pertaining to its POTW. Petitioner appealed the trial court’s decision to sustain the demurrer in favor of the Regional Board. The appellate court consolidated the appeals.
The Court of Appeal’s Decision
California Constitution & Water Code
The Court of Appeal held that the Regional Board does not have a duty to evaluate whether discharges of treated wastewater are an unreasonable use of water under article X, section 2 of the California Constitution and Water Code sections 100 and 275. The court determined that the Legislature did not design or empower the Regional Board to enforce the mandates of article X, section 2 when issuing wastewater discharge permits. Moreover, it explained that the Regional Board’s role in state water law is to regulate water quality by ensuring the state’s waters are sufficiently free of pollutants to be safe for their intended uses—a role which does not include regulation of wasteful or unreasonable use of water. The court stated that nothing in the Water Code delegates the Regional Board powers to adjudicate and regulate functions of the state in the field of water resources or to take all appropriate proceedings or actions to prevent waste and unreasonable use of water, as it delegates to the State Board.
The court rejected petitioner’s argument that article X, section 2 applies to all government actors, including the Regional Board. It explained that while an action could be brought against anybody for wasting water, petitioner’s claims did not allege that the Regional Board was wasting water, but rather, failed to prevent the POTWs from wasting water, and nothing in article X, section 2 or the Water Code empowers the Regional Board to prevent unreasonable use of water.
The Court of Appeal did not need to reach the issue of whether the State Board has a duty to prevent unreasonable use of water because it concluded that petitioner failed to adequately plead a cause of action against the State Board. It nonetheless explained that the provisions in the California Constitution and the Water Code requiring the State Board to prevent the waste of water are highly discretionary and do not require the State Board to prevent all waste, nor do they dictate how to prevent waste. Therefore, these provisions cannot be read to restrict the State Board’s discretion as to whether to direct its resources towards one method of conservation in its portfolio over another.
The Court of Appeal held that Public Resources Code section 21002 does not apply to wastewater discharge permits and, accordingly, the Regional Board is not required to make findings as to whether a project has significant and unavoidable impacts, and whether there are feasible alternatives or mitigation measures that would substantially lessen those impacts.
The appellate court rejected petitioner’s argument that section 21002 imposes environmental review requirements independent of CEQA’s environmental impact report (EIR) procedures from which the wastewater discharge permits are exempt under Water Code section 13389. The court explained that section 21002 does not impose requirements separate from the EIR process; it only has force to the extent an entity is otherwise obligated to prepare an EIR. The court based its reasoning in the language of sections 21002, 21002.1, and 21082, all of which confirm that the EIR is the means by which the agency satisfies the policies articulated in 21002.
The appellate court also rejected petitioner’s argument that an agency can comply with section 21002 by means other than an EIR, and that the Regional Board can comply with this section by using the information and analysis it collects and performs in the normal course of permit approvals. The court explained that it will not read section 21002 to impose such requirements when the Legislature has not specified any means to carry out those requirements apart from an EIR, as there would be no way for a court to evaluate whether the Regional Board’s efforts were sufficient. The court concluded that the Legislature has opted to govern environmental review in this context through the wastewater discharging process by exempting the Regional Board from an EIR requirement.
The court accordingly did not need to reach the broader question of whether Water Code section 13389 provides a complete exemption from CEQA.
– Veronika S. Morrison