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California governor welcomes judicial ruling in Sites Reservoir project

Governor Gavin Newsom on Tuesday noted that judges must rule on certain CEQA challenges within 270 days under a streamlining tool. This ruling occurred in under 150 days.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California Governor Gavin Newsom on Tuesday praised a judge’s decision that denied a move to stop the Sites Reservoir project based on state environmental law, pointing to a streamlined legal process that led to the quick ruling.

Conservation groups had sued over the proposed reservoir, some 80 miles northwest of Sacramento, arguing that it would threaten fish and increase greenhouse gas pollution. They said the reservoir would divert water from the Sacramento River system, which has salmon and steelhead fish.

The groups had argued that the Yolo County Superior Court judge in the case should determine the certification of the final impact report and project approval were invalid, as they didn’t meet the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

Judge Samuel T. McAdam ruled in favor of the Sites Project Authority on Friday.

“California needs more water storage, and we have no time to waste — projects like the Sites Reservoir will capture rain and snow runoff to supply millions of homes with clean drinking water,” Newsom said in a statement. “We’re approaching this work with urgency, everything from water storage to clean energy and transportation projects.”

Newsom also pointed to a project streamlining tool he used which requires judges to rule on CEQA challenges within 270 days, when feasible. McAdam issued his ruling in under 150 days.

The governor has pointed to the need for the Sites Reservoir, which will capture water during the rainy season and store it during drier times. It’ll be able to hold up to 1.5 million acre-feet of water — an amount that could sustain the needs of 3 million homes for a year.

The project has $46.75 million in funding from the state so far. It’s eligible for $875.4 million in Proposition 1 funding. That measure was passed in 2014 and authorized $2.7 billion in water storage project investments.

The Sites project has an estimated cost of $4 billion.

Newsom has said the project will help the state sustain its water supply as it battles climate change, weather extremes and water scarcity. It’s also anticipated that Sites will raise Northern California’s water capacity by up to 15%, improve the ecosystem and provide recreational opportunities.

Its detractors, like Friends of the River — one of the groups that filed suit — argued that the project would harm the environment and mostly benefit its investors, not the public.

The reservoir itself will be in parts of rural Glenn and Colusa counties, with other aspects of the project in Tehama, Glenn, Colusa and Yolo counties. The suit was filed in December.

The conservation groups, among other things, asked for the judge to require a new environmental impact report for the project and stop any activity that would affect the land until it complied with CEQA.

In their petition, they argued that the environmental report relied on an inaccurate environmental baseline, didn’t consider reasonable alternatives, didn’t give a proper description of the project area and relied on an inaccurate project description.  

The judge disagreed with those arguments.

McAdam in his ruling found that the conservation groups had the burden to show the environmental baseline wasn’t supported by evidence. They didn’t. The groups also didn’t convince the judge that the authority didn’t properly examine alternatives.

“Furthermore, it is petitioners' burden to demonstrate that the alternatives analysis is deficient,” the judge wrote. “Petitioners have not met this burden.”

Concerning the project area’s description, McAdam wrote that the authority used field tested, species-specific surveys before construction. The groups argued that the authority “could have” used helicopter surveys.

Citing case law when denying this argument, the judge wrote that judges don’t weigh the correctness of an environmental report’s conclusions, only its sufficiency.

Finally, McAdam found that “the ‘technical, economic, and environmental characteristics’ of the project are described, articulated, and illustrated” in compliance with the proper guidelines.

“Sadly, the court found that the Sites (final environmental impact report) was a legally adequate document," said Keiko Mertz, policy director with Friends of the River, in a statement. "We still believe there were significant flaws, including that the (report) doesn’t provide an alternative that protects fish and wildlife.”

Categories / Courts, Environment, Government

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