Cent. Basin Mun. Water Dist. v. Water Replenishment Dist. of S. Cal.

Cent. Basin Mun. Water Dist. v. Water Replenishment Dist. of S. Cal., 150 Cal. Rptr. 3d 354 (2012) (certified for partial publication) (holding that a water replenishment district did not have to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act prior to declaring a water emergency because it did not have any environmental impact and declaration of a water emergency was a ministerial act for which the Water Replenishment District had no authority to modify existing physical solutions imposed by prior water rights adjudications).

The Water Replenishment District of Southern California (“WRD”) declared a “water emergency” in the Central Basin, a groundwater basin within Los Angeles County, on November 19, 2010.  Under the terms of a judgment (“the Judgment”) from the Superior Court of Los Angeles County dating back to 1991, WRD may declare a water emergency when the basin resources “risk degradation.”  A water emergency declaration enlarges the portion of water that a pumper may carry over to another year, thereby preserving a pumper’s right to water longer than usual.  Therefore, a pumper can extract a greater amount of water than his annual allotment during a water emergency because of an extended overextraction period.  The Judgment was an equitable decree aimed at alleviating overdrafts and depletion of water resources in a given area consistent with California’s Constitutional mandate to prevent waste.  However, a declared water emergency is limited to a one-year duration.

The Central Basin Municipal Water District (“CBMWD”) challenged the WRD’s declared water emergency on the ground that it did not comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”).  CEQA is a broad environmental law, mirroring many provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act, which applies to most public agency decisions to approve projects with potential adverse effects on the environment.  CBMWD argued that WRD “ignored the significant environmental impacts” associated with declaring a water emergency.  CBMWD argued that WRD should have considered effects of increased short-term holding and long-term pumping by water users which occur as a result of a water emergency declaration.  CBMWD also argued that WRD did not contemplate the effects of delayed replacement of overextracted groundwater because a water emergency increased pumpers’ carry over rights from one to five-years.

WRD demurred to CBMWD’s petition, and the Superior Court of Los Angeles County (“Superior Court”) sustained WRD’s demurrer.  The Superior Court found in favor of WRD because the Judgment explicitly authorized WRD to declare the water emergency.  Although WRD was a public agency usually subject to CEQA, WRD was acting as an agent of the court in implementing the terms of the Judgment.  The Superior Court reasoned that groundwater usage authorized by the governing Judgment is exempt from CEQA because the Judgment approved the Watermaster’s authority to resolve groundwater usage issues in the Central Basin.  CBMWD appealed to the Second District, Division 8, California Court of Appeal (“Appeals Court”).

The Appeals Court held that CEQA was inapplicable in a water emergency declaration.  It explained that CEQA distinguished between ministerial and discretionary projects.  CEQA applies only to discretionary projects, for which the agency must prepare an environmental impact report (“EIR”).  The Appeals Court further explained that ministerial projects are ones in which WRD may not shape the process to address environmental concerns.  The Appeals Court specifically held that the declaration of a water emergency has no environmental impact and therefore is not a project within the definition of CEQA.  The Appeals Court also held that WRD had no discretion to alter the terms of the Judgment even if an EIR was prepared.  Therefore, even if WRD considered the environmental effects of declaring a water emergency, an EIR would have no effect because WRD simply had no discretion to modify carry over rights or delayed replenishment.

The Appeals Court further held that even if CEQA was applicable, the Judgment’s physical solution trumped CEQA.  The Appeals Court explained that where an existing judgment or decree implementing a Constitutional mandate is in place establishing a physical solution, the agency cannot act in contravention of the physical solution.  Therefore, WRD had no discretionary authority and only the court had the power to act.

Accordingly, the Appeals Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling and allowed WRD’s declared water emergency to stand.