Tag: Clean Water Act

First District Holds Regional Water Quality Control Board’s Failure to Impose Mitigation Requirements Through CEQA Process Did Not Preclude it from Later Imposing Those Requirements Pursuant to Its Authority Under the Porter-Cologne Act

The First District Court of Appeal in Santa Clara Valley Water District v. San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board (2020) 59 Cal.App.5th 199, held that CEQA did not preclude the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, acting as a responsible agency under CEQA, from imposing additional waste discharge requirements via the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act, beyond the mitigation measures imposed during the CEQA process.

Background

Every 10-20 years, the Upper Berryessa Creek—which drains from the Diablo Range Hills to the Coyote Creek tributary, and ultimately into the San Francisco Bay—floods the nearby areas of Milpitas and San Jose. In the 1980s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began working on plans to build a flood control project on the creek, but the project did not move forward until 2013, when construction of a nearby BART station that could be impacted by flooding was proposed.

In 2015, the Santa Clara Valley Water District (District), acting as the lead agency under CEQA, issued a Draft EIR for the project. That same month, the Corps applied to the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) for a section 401 Clean Water Act certification for the project.

The District later issued the Final EIR for the project, and the RWQCB’s executive officer issued the section 401 certification. As a CEQA responsible agency, the RWQCB found that all impacts within its jurisdiction would be mitigated to less-than-significant levels but clarified that it would later consider waste discharge requirements (WDRs) pursuant to its authority under the Porter-Cologne Act to address impacts to waters and wetlands that were not handled by the section 401 certificate.

In 2017, when project construction was nearly complete, the RWQCB issued a WDR order that required the Corps and the District to provide addition mitigation for the project’s impacts to waters and wetlands. The order stated that it suspended and replaced the prior 401 certification.

The District filed a petition for writ of mandate against the RWQCB, challenging the WDR order under CEQA, as well as section 401 of the Clean Water Act, the Porter-Cologne Act, and other state laws. The trial court denied the petition. The District appealed.

Court of Appeal’s Decision

On appeal, the District argued the RWQCB violated CEQA because: (1) the RWQCB’s failure to impose mitigation requirements as part of the RWQCB’s CEQA review barred it from imposing mitigation via the WDR order; and (2) the RWQCB prejudicially abused its discretion by failing to support the mitigation requirements with substantial evidence. The Court of Appeal rejected both arguments.

Relying on CEQA Guidelines section 15096, the District argued that the RWQCB’s only opportunity to impose mitigation was through the CEQA process. CEQA Guidelines section 15096 provides that a responsible agency that disagrees with the adequacy of a lead agency’s EIR must either sue the lead agency within 30 days, be deemed to have waived any objections to the EIR, prepare a subsequent EIR if legitimate grounds exist, or, assume the role of a lead agency as provided by Guidelines section 15052, subdivision (a)(3). Because the RWQCB did not challenge the District’s certification of the EIR or find that a subsequent EIR was required, the District argued that the EIR was deemed adequate and no additional mitigation measure could be imposed. As explained by the court, however, Public Resources section 21174 includes a savings clause that makes clear that CEQA does not prevent an agency from exercising it independent authority under statutes other than CEQA. The court determined, therefore, that the RWQCB did not violate CEQA by issuing the WDRs because it did so pursuant to its duties under the Porter-Cologne Act. Although the District, acting as lead agency, had not imposed CEQA mitigation measures requiring WDRs, the RWQCB, as a responsible agency, was not precluded from separately discharging its authority under the Porter-Cologne Act. Although the appellate court noted that unified CEQA review and other environmental regulation should be the norm, there may be times when an agency’s own environmental regulation can take place after CEQA review, as recognized by Public Resources Code section 21174.

The court also rejected the District’s claim that the RWQCB’s WDR order imposed “excessive” mitigation that was not supported by substantial evidence. The court concluded that the District failed to engage in sufficient analysis of the evidence supporting the RWQCB’s conclusions, and therefore, failed to carry its burden. The court also concluded that the District’s arguments lacked merit even if they had been properly briefed because the RWQCB’s determinations were supported by substantial evidence.

– Bridget McDonald

Federal District Court Holds the United States Army Corps of Engineers Violated the Endangered Species Act in Reissuing Nationwide Permit 12 Without Initiating Section 7 Consultation

In Northern Plains Resource Council v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (D. Mont. 2020) — F.Supp.3d – (2020 WL 1875455), the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana overturned Nationwide Permit 12 (“NWP 12”). Of practical importance, the court’s ruling on this matter applies throughout the nation.

Under the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) (33 U.S.C. § 1251 et seq.), the Army Corps of Engineers (“Corps”) is authorized to issue general nationwide permits to streamline the permitting process for certain categories of activities. Nationwide permits may last up to five years, at which point they must be reissued or allowed to expire. NWP 12 authorizes impacts to waters of the United States as a result of construction, repair, maintenance, and removal of utility infrastructure. All nationwide permits, including NWP 12, are subject to 32 general conditions contained in the federal regulations. As relevant here, General Condition 18 prohibits the use of any nationwide permit for activities that are likely to directly or indirectly jeopardize threatened or endangered species or designated critical habitat for such species under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) (16 U.S.C. § 1531 et seq.)

NWP 12 is one of 52 nationwide permits the Corps reissued in 2017. In reissuing NWP 12, the Corps determined that NWP 12 would result in no more than minimal individual and cumulative adverse effects on the aquatic environment under the CWA and further concluded that NWP 12 complied with both the ESA and the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) (42 U.S.C. § 4321, et seq.). The Corps determined there would be “no effect” to ESA-listed species or critical habitat and did not initiate consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife or National Marine Fisheries Service (collectively, the “Services”). Pursuant to NEPA, the Corps prepared an Environmental Assessment and issued a Finding of No Significant Impact.

Northern Plains Resource Council, et al. challenged the Corps’ action to reissue NWP 12, alleging it violated the ESA, NEPA, and the CWA.

Specifically, plaintiffs argued that the Corps’ failure to initiate programmatic consultation with the Services violated the ESA. The Corps, in response, contended that it did not need to conduct programmatic consultation because project-level review and General Condition 18 ensure that NWP 12 will not affect listed species or critical habitat. The court disagreed, finding there was substantial evidence supporting the contrary conclusion, therefore requiring the Corps to initiate consultation to ensure that activities authorized by NWP 12 complied with the ESA. The court emphasized that the Corps had acknowledged the many risks associated with discharges authorized by NWP 12 when it was reissued in 2017. For example, the Corps found that the construction of utility lines “will fragment terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems” and further stated that activities under NWP 12 “will result in a minor incremental contribution to the cumulative effects to wetlands, streams and other aquatic resources.” Moreover, the Corps had initiated consultation when it reissued NWP 12 in 2007 and 2012. The court also relied on expert declarations submitted by plaintiffs stating that the Corps’ issuance of NWP 12 authorized discharges that may affect endangered species and their habitats.

The court further held that General Condition 18 fails to fulfill the Corps’ obligations under the ESA. General Condition 18 requires the permittee to submit a pre-construction notification to the district engineer if the permittee believes that its activity “might” affect listed species or critical habitat. The court found that this improperly delegated the Corps’ responsibility to make the initial effect determination under the ESA.

Holding that the Corps’ “no effect” determination and resulting failure to initiate consultation prior to reissuance of NWP 12 was arbitrary and capricious, the court remanded NWP 12 to the Corps for compliance with the ESA. The court determined that it need not decide the plaintiffs’ remaining claims as it anticipated that Section 7 consultation will inform the Corps’ assessment under NEPA and the CWA based on the findings of the consultation.