Another state agency flaunting California’s environmental laws

waterThe Department of Water Resources has been drilling for weeks in Yolo County without permits required by state law designed to protect against ground water contamination, under the belief its activities are exempt.

Like other counties’ battles with Caltrans over the same issue, Yolo County believes even government agencies need to obtain permits and conform to the state’s Water Code and subsequent regulations, which clearly express that state agencies are not exempt.

DWR, however, maintains it is exempt from the rules when engaging in “sovereign activities,” according to DWR spokeswoman Lauren Bisnett, who noted there are too many local regulations throughout the state for DWR to be expected to follow.

“We couldn’t follow local ordinances for every county,” Bisnett said. 

A Yolo County official confirmed on Friday that there were “active discussions” with DWR on the permitting issue and said the county is waiting for DWR to provide a legal opinion justifying its actions.

Sounds familiar

Avid CalWatchdog readers will remember a recent investigation uncovering a similar and widespread issue with Caltrans, where a fight with Sacramento County became ground zero in a statewide battle between counties and Caltrans. 

For around 25 years, Caltrans performed similar drilling — which essentially checks the structural soundness of the ground prior to building on top of it — under a similar belief it was exempt from state law.

In 2014, Caltrans brass decided to conform with the law going forward, spending millions of dollars to travel into the past to locate and seal thousands of holes. Caltrans estimates the effort could cost between $17 million and $37.2 million over the next five years, in addition to the $5.2 million that’s been spent already — with future budget requests dependent on whether counties will agree to let them off the hook for unfound holes.

Sacramento County issued a notice of violation to Caltrans late last year, threatening as much as $5.23 million per day until the borehole mitigation plan was complete. While the compliance date was January 4, an extension was granted. Since then, the matter has not been resolved and Sacramento County has been unable to provide an update. 

Bisnett told CalWatchdog that DWR had no opinion on Caltrans’ change of heart and its expensive efforts to retroactively comply with that law, and pointed to a difference of opinion between the two agencies.

The law

In 1986, the Legislature amended the California Water Code to include in its definition of regulated wells many of those drilled by DWR and Caltrans.

The measure and subsequent regulations did several things, including listing the state as an entity regulated by the law and empowering local agencies to meet or exceed state standards for drilling in their individual jurisdictions — Yolo County’s standards require permits.

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