By William W. Abbott

Central Basin Municipal Water District v. Water Replenishment District Of Southern California(2012) 211 Cal.App.4th 943. Notwithstanding CEQA’s pervasive application, there are-on rare occasions-circumstances in which agency action is exempt from CEQA compliance. The most recent example involves a declaration of water emergency approved by the Water Replenishment District of Southern California (WRD) in the Central Basin in Southern California. WRD manages groundwater for approximately 4,000,000 residents and 43 cities. In 1991, a trial court entered judgment pertaining to groundwater management in the basin. The judgment authorized WRD to declare a water emergency in circumstances in which the basin resources risked degradation. The judgment also included a “physical solution”, a phrase of art in water law, describing a comprehensive program for groundwater management. A consequence of the declaration of emergency is that the time period for extractors to remove and replenish water would be extended into later years.

The Central Basin Municipal Water District filed suit, arguing that the declaration of emergency would have physical consequences (due to delayed extraction and replenishment) that necessitated CEQA review. The trial court and court of appeal rejected this argument. Given that the declaration of emergency was in implementation of the prior judgment, and that WRD had no authority to modify the terms of the judgment, the courts concluded that WRD’s actions were ministerial in character, and therefore, not subject to CEQA. This line of reasoning is consistent with prior CEQA decisions which focus on the question of whether an agency has a meaningful opportunity to shape or modify the pending action. If that opportunity is lacking, then CEQA review would provide no pragmatic benefits, and is not required.

As a second and independent basis for denying relief, the appellate court concluded that the earlier judgment’s “physical solution”, as an allocation of rights in the basin, trumped application of CEQA to later implementing actions such as the declaration of emergency.

William W. Abbott is a partner at Abbott & Kindermann, LLP. For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann, LLP at (916) 456-9595.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Abbott & Kindermann, LLP, or the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Because of the changing nature of this area of the law and the importance of individual facts, readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.