The Supreme Court of California has granted review of two cases to resolve a split among courts of appeal over whether the issuance of well permits pursuant to state standards is subject to CEQA. California Water Impact Network v. County of San Luis Obispo and Protecting Our Water & Environmental Resources v. Stanislaus County.
At the forefront of these cases is whether the standards issued by the Department of Water Resources for well construction give local agencies any discretion when issuing well permits. Water is a critical resource in the state and with enactment of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014, groundwater, particularly its sustainable withdrawal and quality, are issues receiving more attention. Consequently, the practice of ministerial approval of well construction permits by local agencies without discretionary environmental review have come under increasing scrutiny.
In both California Water Impact Network and Protecting Our Water & Environmental Resources, plaintiffs alleged that the counties’ practice of treating approval of well construction permits as a ministerial action results in hundreds of permits being issued each year without CEQA review. The plaintiffs assert that this practice, and the counties’ respective ordinances, violate CEQA because the state standards are not entirely objective, rather, they give the counties discretion to consider local environmental factors when issuing a permit. It is against this backdrop that the Court will consider both cases. The Court’s decision will likely affect how well construction permits are reviewed and issued by local agencies throughout the state.
Water Code Section 13801 requires local agencies to adopt the minimum standards established by DWR for well construction. These standards, in DWR Bulletins No. 74-81 and 74-90, provide guidance on well construction, location, surface features, seals, casing materials and so forth with the goal of preventing groundwater contamination and pollution. Stanislaus County’s well ordinance incorporates both DWR Bulletins, while San Luis Obispo County’s ordinance only incorporates DWR Bulletin 74-81, though in practice, the county also applies the standards in DWR Bulletin 74-90.