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Brown Suspends Environmental Law in Drought Declaration

The state's foremost environmental law no longer protects wildlife or the environment from the effects of the state's response to the drought, after an emergency drought declaration was signed by Governor Brown at a press event in San Francisco Friday morning.

Buried in the language of the declaration, unmentioned at the press event which focused on voluntary conservation programs, is a clause exempting the state's responses from having to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the backbone of the state's environmental protection law.

The declaration claims that compliance with CEQA would get in the way of swift reaction to the effects of the drought emergency.

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Here's the text in question, section 9 of Friday's drought declaration:.

9.The Department of Water Resources and the Water Board will take actions necessary to make water immediately available, and, for purposes of carrying out directives 5 and 8, Water Code section 13247 and Division 13 (commencing with section 21000) of the Public Resources Code and regulations adopted pursuant to that Division are suspended on the basis that strict compliance with them will prevent, hinder, or delay the mitigation of the effects of the emergency.

Division 13 of the state's Public Resources Code is the technical, "codified" name for CEQA.

The section also exempts the Department of Water Resources and the Water Board from compliance with section 13247 of the state's Water Code, which means the agencies don't have to comply with water quality plans.

The exemptions apply to the agencies in carrying out orders in the drought declaration relating to dam releases and transfers of water between the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project. Both CEQA and the requirement that agencies follow water quality plans serve to protect California's beleaguered fish populations, including the Central Valley's salmon runs and the Delta smelt, which is listed as Endangered under the California Endangered Species Act.

Water quality violations in the smelt's habitat have recently restricted agricultural water diversions from the Sacramento River: if more water is diverted as a result of exemptions from state environmental law, the smelt -- whose population fell to a near-record low in the past year -- could be history: its range is restricted to a narrow band in the delta where seawater and freshwater mix, and diversions in a drought year could push that "mixing zone" too far inland for the fish to survive.

Meanwhile, exempting the state's water agencies' drought measures from CEQA means that diversions and transfers won't be subject to third-party scientific analysis or public comment.

Though the exemptions went unmentioned at the San Francisco press conference, they aren't a particular surprise from Brown, a longtime foe of CEQA. We'll be tracking the implementation of this exemption and reporting on comment from water and wildlife activists as the story develops.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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