The Imperial County Air Pollution Control District and the County of Imperial challenged the United States Department of the Interior’s Environmental Impact Statement analyzing the effects of water transfer agreements on the Salton Sea and in southern California. The court held that the Department did not violate NEPA or the Clean Air Act. The case is People of the State of California ex rel. Imperial County Air Pollution Control District v. U.S. Department of the Interior (May 19, 2014) 14 C.D.O.S. 5454.
The Salton Sea’s access to Colorado River water—the Sea’s only water supply— is in jeopardy. In 1922, states in the Colorado River basin agreed to divide the river’s water among the upper- and lower-basin states. In 1931, southern California irrigation and water districts agreed to a framework for distributing the state’s share of the river water, which assumed a perpetual surplus of the water. In 1963, the Supreme Court held in Arizona v. California that California’s Colorado River allotment was limited to 4.4 million acre-feet per year, and that the state could only exceed this limit if other lower-basin states did not use their allotments or there was a surplus of water. In 1999, several water districts negotiated Quantification Settlement Agreements to reduce Colorado River water usage.
In 2001, the Secretary of the Interior announced that she would prepare an Implementation Agreement EIS to consider the consequences of delivering a portion of Imperial Irrigation water at different diversion points on the Colorado River for use outside of the Imperial Valley. The Final EIS (“FEIS”) discussed on-river environmental impacts of altering Colorado River delivery diversion points, indirect effects of changing the amount of water received by the California districts, and potential mitigation measures to reduce off-river ecological consequences. In 2003, the Secretary evaluated minor modifications to the proposed master implementation agreement, the Colorado River Water Delivery Agreement. She determined a supplemental EIS was unnecessary and issued a final record of decision. Plaintiffs sued and the district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, holding that plaintiffs lacked standing and, alternatively, rejecting their NEPA claims on the merits.
Ninth Circuit Decision
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal held that plaintiffs had established Article III standing, and thus moved on to plaintiffs’ substantive arguments. In assessing plaintiffs’ NEPA claims, the court first considered whether the Secretary had taken a “hard look” at the environmental consequences of the proposed action and reasonably evaluated the relevant facts.
Plaintiffs argued that the Implementation EIS either did not clarify whether it incorporated the state Transfer Environmental Impact Report or the Federal Transfer EIS, or improperly cited to a non-NEPA document—the Transfer EIR. The court determined that plaintiffs’ assertion that the FEIS cited to the separate CEQA and NEPA reviews as if they were a single document was “fly-specking,” and the court stated it would not let a minor misstatement prejudice its review. The court also found harmless a reference to a document as “tiered to and incorporated” when the analysis should have only said “incorporated.” The court further held that the Secretary did not act arbitrarily by separately preparing a Transfer EIS and an Implementation Agreement EIS, since the project could be properly segmented in that manner under the independent utility test.
The court held that the Secretary did not abuse her discretion in concluding that a supplemental EIS was unnecessary. The changes contained in the FEIS: (1) were qualitatively considered through a no-mitigation alternative; (2) were a secondary aspect of the EIS; (3) reduced overall an adverse environmental impact; and (4) did not alter the project’s cost-benefit analysis. Additionally, the FEIS and the record of decision sufficiently considered potential mitigation measures.
The court also held that the decision to discuss only one alternative—no action—was not arbitrary and capricious. NEPA does not require discussion of a minimum number of alternatives; the number depends on the stated goal of the project. The FEIS compared the project to only one alternative because the project was a negotiated agreement. Discussing a hypothetical alternative that no one had agreed to or would likely agree to, the court reasoned, would have been unhelpful.
The court also found the EIS sufficiently discussed air quality, reclamation, and growth-inducing impacts.
Finally, the court addressed plaintiffs’ Clean Air Act claims. The court noted that neither federal nor state conformity rules (which prohibit the authorization of activities that do not conform with an approved implementation plan) identify the form an agency must use when deciding whether a project necessitates a full-scale conformity determination. Here, the Secretary announced her decision that a conformity determination was unnecessary in the FEIS. The court stated that an agency need not prepare a stand-alone document explaining that decision. Furthermore, the Secretary did not abuse her discretion by concluding that Interior Department actions would not directly cause PM10 emissions. The project only committed the Secretary to changing the delivery point of Colorado River Water; any actions would occur at dams far from those diversion points.
The court affirmed the judgment of the district court.