Press Release May 10, 2016

Alston & Bird Prevails on Amicus Briefs for Association of California Water Agencies

On May 10, 2016, the California Court of Appeal ruled in favor of the Santa Margarita Water District and San Bernardino County in two cases challenging the Cadiz water project, a public-private partnership that seeks to pump and beneficially use groundwater from an aquifer in the Mojave Desert located in San Bernardino County.

In both cases, Alston & Bird submitted amicus briefs on behalf of the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) in support of the project. ACWA is the largest statewide coalition of public water agencies in the country.

The cases were brought by a group of nonprofit organizations, including the Center of Biological Diversity (CBD).

The first case was a challenge under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in which CBD argued that the Santa Margarita Water District was improperly named as the lead agency because the primary environmental impacts from the project would occur outside its jurisdiction. ACWA’s amicus brief emphasized that CBD’s position was contrary to Section 15051 of the CEQA guidelines, which expressly allows an agency carrying out a project outside its jurisdiction to act as the lead agency. ACWA’s brief also focused on the policy implications of CBD’s legal position, emphasizing the supreme importance of multijurisdictional water projects to the state’s future and arguing that a ruling in CBD’s favor would create disputes over the lead agency question that could hamper such vital projects moving forward.

The Court of Appeal agreed with ACWA and the respondents, ruling that Section 15051 of the CEQA guidelines allowed Santa Margarita to act as the lead agency. The court ruled in complete accordance with ACWA’s position on the importance of water projects and key principles of California water law. The decision will be published, adding a valuable legal tool for water agencies carrying out multijurisdictional water projects.

ACWA’s second amicus brief focused on CBD’s challenge to San Bernardino County’s project approval under a county ordinance. The Court of Appeal rejected the challenge, ruling that the county’s approval of the project and its interpretation of county ordinance were proper. ACWA’s brief addressed a number of misrepresentations of core state water law management principles raised by CBD. In an unpublished opinion, the court confirmed the core legal principles of groundwater management cited in ACWA’s brief, ruling that water agencies must be afforded flexibility in utilizing groundwater resources to the maximum extent possible without causing long-term adverse effects on the state’s water supply sources.

Acting for ACWA are Alston & Bird attorneys Ed Casey and Andrew Brady (Environment, Land Use & Natural Resources Group).

The case is Center for Biological Diversity, et al. v. Santa Margarita Water District, et al., Cal. Ct. App., 4th App. Dist., Div. 3 Case Nos. G51058 and G51080.
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