On Thursday, September 9, Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot a letter to the members of the legislature regarding the controversial CEQA exemption in the Natural Resources trailer bill, AB/SB 155.
Crowfoot’s letter addressed objections to the trailer bill previously raised by Restore the Delta, stating:
The proposed CEQA exemption may only be applied to habitat restoration projects. By its own terms, it can only be used for projects that are exclusively focused on habitat. Further, the language specifically precludes construction activities, except for construction activities that are solely related to habitat restoration.
Accordingly, this proposed exemption cannot and will not be used to accelerate the Department of Water Resources’ proposed project to establish underground water conveyance through the Delta. That project is not exclusively focused on habitat and will require substantial construction activities, unrelated to restoration, which makes the proposed CEQA exemption in Section 23 inapplicable to that project.
While the language in the Resources trailer bill precludes construction activities, the CEQA exemption is much broader than for habitat restoration projects. It applies to any project which is exclusively “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.”
This is the exact language:
21080.56. (a) This division does not apply to a project that is exclusively one of the following:(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.(b) An eligible project may have incidental public benefits, such as public access and recreation.(c) This section does not apply to a project unless the project does both of the following:(1) Results in long-term net benefits to climate resiliency, biodiversity, and sensitive species recovery.(2) Includes procedures and ongoing management for the protection of the environment.(d) This section does not apply to a project that includes construction activities, except for construction activities solely related to habitat restoration.
Reportedly, the Natural Resources Agency disclosed the proposed CEQA exemption language to a few habitat restoration groups and the legislative leadership. There appears to have been no communication with most Delta stakeholders about the proposed language, and Crowfoot’s letter is silent on whether the Natural Resources Agency intends to apply this exemption to the Voluntary Settlement Agreement projects.
The Natural Resources trailer bill was published on Labor day — five days prior to the close of the legislative session. The legislature’s policy committees had no chance to review the language. It is also not possible for any member of the legislature to amend the language due to the requirement that the language of the bill be in print for 72 hours before the floor vote.
Delta counties and other Delta local agencies have objected to the CEQA exemption in the Resources trailer bill. Since CEQA is the process for review and input on projects by local agencies, this action by the Natural Resources Agency appears to signal an end to any true collaboration with local agencies on these projects.