Natural Resources budget trailer bill would exempt habitat restoration projects from CEQA

Aerial photo of Franks Tract

SB 155, the Senate Natural Resources budget trailer bill, provides $593 million for projects that “advance multi-benefit and nature based solutions” this fiscal year, and another $175 million next fiscal year.

Section 23 of the bill exempts the following projects from the California Environmental Quality Act:

(1) A project to conserve, restore, protect, or enhance, and assist in the recovery of California native fish and wildlife, and the habitat upon which they depend.

(2) A project to restore or provide habitat for California native fish and wildlife.

Section 23 does not apply “to a project that includes construction activities, except for construction activities solely related to habitat restoration.” The section sunsets on January 1, 2025.

Attorney Osha Meserve expressed concern about the CEQA exemption, stating:

To me the issue is really poor planning.  It is through the CEQA process (typically an EIR for a large restoration project)  that we get: (1) a complete project description, (2) identification of project impacts, and (3) development of alternatives and mitigation measures to reduce significant impacts.  With no other statewide standards, these projects need the CEQA process to properly develop into implementable and successful projects.

Meserve also noted:

Such a major change in the law would require careful development of standards so that restoration is responsibly undertaken. The definitions and processes are not worked out at all – or in conformance with best practices of reputable organizations that implement restoration projects. The process in the trailer bill does not provide for any public, expert or local agency input for restoration projects — no matter what the scale.

CEQA is currently the only formal process by which projects have review and input by local stakeholders.  A transdisciplinary research team at UC Merced has just published a “lessons learned” paper which explains clearly the importance of local input in climate adaptation.  The paper is 3 Challenges, 3 Errors, and 3 Solutions to Integrate Frontline Communities in Climate Change Policy and Research: Lessons From California by Angel Santiago Fernandez-Bou et. al.

Error #1 is Ignoring Local Knowledge.  The authors state:

Excluding local experts and knowledge can contribute to inadequate planning to address environmental justice in climate change strategies, and it can prevent stakeholder involvement in essential decisions and project development.

Error #2 is Top-Down Decisionmaking.  The authors state:

Power disparities grant decision-making power to scientists and policymakers as the only experts, perpetuating a status quo that prevents communities from meaningful involvement in policy development and that leads to ineffective climate change policies that are not tailored to address local needs and resource gaps.

Error 3 is System Abuse and Tokenism.  The authors state:

Proposed beneficial impacts often rely on future potential employment or subjective environmental benefits with nearly no net benefit for underserved communities [citation omitted.]

Exempting the large habitat restoration projects funded by SB 155 from CEQA could institutionalize the errors described by Fernandez-Bou et. al in the project planning, because there is currently no other formal process by which local stakeholders review and provide input to projects. Frontline communities deserve better.

The legislature should reject this language in the budget trailer bill.

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