In California Coastkeeper Alliance v. State Lands Commission (2021) 64 Cal.App.5th 36, the court upheld the State Lands Commission’s decision to prepare and approve a supplemental Environmental Impact Report for the proposed Lease Modification Project for the Poseidon desalination plant in Huntington Beach, California. The court concluded that the Commission did not engage in piecemealing, improper deferral of environmental review or inadequate consideration of alternatives, and was not required under California Code of Regulations, title 14, section 15052, subdivision (a)(2) (“CEQA Guidelines”) to step in as the lead agency for the lease modification.
In 2010, the City of Huntington Beach approved a subsequent EIR to the initially certified 2005 EIR for the desalination project. There were no legal challenges to the 2010 subsequent EIR.
In 2015, the State Water Resources Control Board amended its Water Quality Control Plan to include a Desalination Amendment, which updated methods for intake and discharge systems in desalination facilities. The Desalination Amendment also required the Regional Water Quality Control Board to conduct an analysis under Water Code section 13142.5, subdivision (b) of all new and expanded desalination facilities and required that the owner or operator evaluate a reasonable range of nearby sites for subsurface intakes. In response, Poseidon modified the project in 2016 and 2017 to include (1) one-millimeter steel screens on the offshore intake pipeline to reduce impingement and entrainment; (2) three-port diffusers to diffuse brine discharge reentering the ocean; and (3) a reduction of the seawater intake volume of the Project by 45.3 million gallons per day.
In 2017, the Commission, as a responsible agency, elected to prepare a supplemental EIR for the proposed lease modification project, which incorporated the 2010 subsequent EIR by reference. California Coastkeeper Alliance filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the certification of the 2017 EIR.
The Court of Appeal’s Opinion
Decision to Prepare a Supplemental EIR
The court determined that substantial evidence supported the Commission’s decision to prepare a supplemental EIR instead of a subsequent EIR. Pursuant to CEQA Guidelines section 15163, the 2017 version of the project consisted of only minor additions or changes from the 2010 version. Therefore, the Commission did not prejudicially abuse its discretion.
Assuming the Lead Agency Role
Rejecting the petitioners’ contention that the Commission was required to assume lead agency status under CEQA Guidelines section 15052, the court concluded that this requirement was inapplicable. A proper determination to prepare a supplemental EIR, rather than a subsequent EIR, removes the subsequent environmental review from the scope of CEQA Guidelines section 15052. Thus, the Commission was not required to step in as the lead agency. The court also rejected the petitioners’ argument that the Commission “acted like” a lead agency during the review process, stating that it acted like a responsible agency because a supplemental EIR is subject to the same notice and public review requirements as the initial draft EIR.
Petitioners claimed that the Commission illegally piecemealed the project by only reviewing the lease modification project, and not the entire desalination project. The court explained, however, that the 2017 EIR incorporated by reference the 2010 EIR, which was never challenged and thus presumed to comply with CEQA for purposes of use by the Commission. The Commission was thus only required to analyze the changes to the project since the 2010 subsequent EIR, which it did. Further, the court rejected the petitioners’ contention that the Commission deferred parts of the environmental review analysis to other agencies. Again, the Commission satisfied its requirements by analyzing the impacts associated with the proposed enhancements to the project in combination with the previously analyzed impacts.
Consideration of Alternatives and Current Conditions
Petitioners also challenged the Commission’s consideration of alternatives to the project on several grounds, all of which the court rejected. Pursuant to CEQA Guidelines section 15126.6, the court concluded that the 2017 supplemental EIR considered a reasonable range of alternatives, including an intake pipeline extension and a two-port brine diffuser. The court held that the Commission was not required to reevaluate alternatives that were considered and rejected in the 2010 subsequent EIR, nor was it required to consider alternatives beyond those relevant to the proposed modifications.
The court also dismissed the petitioners’ assertion that changes in Orange County’s water needs supplanted the need for the project because they failed to lay out evidence in support of their position, which was fatal to their claim. Even if they had provided evidence in support of their claim, the court reasoned, substantial evidence in the record supported the Commission’s conclusion that Orange County still needed the project to add to its water supply.
Lastly, the court determined that the Commission was not required to consider the Orange County Water District’s (“OCWD”) construction of a new water distribution option involving injection wells and pipelines as a reasonably foreseeable project change. Based on the record, the court concluded that any consideration by OCWD of a different water distribution system than what was reviewed in the 2010 EIR was merely speculative and not reasonably foreseeable. The court held that the Commission had no way to know the particulars of a potential new distribution system, and therefore an EIR could not provide meaningful information on such a speculative change.