Editorial: CEQA end run could come back to haunt the Delta and Sacramento

Published: Sunday, Aug. 26, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6E
Last Modified: Sunday, Sep. 9, 2012 - 1:15 pm

When making sausage, competent chefs know they can't rush the process – unless they want to risk their fingers getting stuck in the meat grinder.

Up until Thursday, it appeared that the sausage makers of the Legislature were prepared to make a bloody mess of a dish with a last-minute overhaul of the California Environmental Quality Act. Fortunately, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg intervened, meaning that the upper house will not take up the measure before the session comes to a merciful end this week.

As we've said in previous editorials, CEQA is ripe for manipulation and needs updating. It is too often abused to slow down projects for reasons that have nothing to do with environmental protection. But since it was enacted in 1970, the law has demonstrated its historic value. In many situations, the mitigation requirements of CEQA have forced big developers to modify their plans in response to community concerns, resulting in a better project than the original version.

Unfortunately, the gut-and-amend CEQA revamp that business groups attempted to push through the Legislature last week didn't strike the necessary balance. Not even close. Had the Legislature approved it and the governor signed it, the bill would have posed serious harm to numerous communities, including Sacramento, San Joaquin and Yolo counties.

Under the bill language being circulated, major projects would be insulated from CEQA litigation if they complied with an existing plan that had already undergone an environmental review. Legal experts tell us that would have exempted high-speed rail from CEQA challenges, since the High-Speed Rail Authority has already prepared a plan for the project. It also might have exempted the so-called "peripheral tunnels" – the massive water pipes planned for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta – from CEQA litigation and mitigation.

Think about that. The California Department of Water Resources is planning to build three water intakes on the Sacramento River, near the town of Hood, that would obliterate hundreds of acres of farmland and possibly dozens of homes and businesses. Each intake will be capable of withdrawing 3,000 cubic feet of water per second – 10 times the volume withdrawn by the Freeport Water Project, which has a fairly large footprint on its own. The construction impacts alone would be enormous, not to mention the potential impact to the Sacramento River and its salmon runs.

Proponents of this water project have been saying all along it would undergo the highest levels of environmental review, both under federal laws and CEQA. Yet now, just weeks after Gov. Jerry Brown and the Obama administration affirmed their support for the tunnels, lawmakers attempted to exempt the project from state environmental reviews, with Brown stating that "CEQA reform is the Lord's work."

This end-of-session power play should serve as a wake-up call for residents and elected leaders in Sacramento, San Joaquin and Yolo counties. There apparently is a sizable coalition out there that wants to build these intakes and tunnels right through the heart of the Delta and reduce opportunities for affected counties to mitigate the damage. That isn't the Lord's work. That's work of a seriously sinister force.

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