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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  1. Donkey
    Donkey 15 August, 2016, 14:51

    The law only apply to the little folk, not the porkers that work in government. 🙂

    Reply this comment
    • In The Know
      In The Know 2 September, 2016, 11:07

      I suppose DWR could spend thousands of your tax dollars to enforce its own Water Code on itself if it would make you feel better. But if they did, it would set a precedent and require millions more of your tax dollars to pay for all the back permits that the counties would then demand solely because they want the money. Refer to the CalTrans case which recently cost you millions.

      Reply this comment
  2. Queeg
    Queeg 15 August, 2016, 16:29

    Comrade Dare E Air

    Where are the Ragwus? …are they out there for the kids?

    Reply this comment
  3. Shelby
    Shelby 15 August, 2016, 21:24

    First time poster so don’t beat me up but watching and reading. Caltrans manned up (sexist I know) and did the right legal thing to own this mistake and pay for it and mitigate it. Last I looked, Caltrans is state wide as well as DWR and they both have to deal with 58 counties. For DWR to say that they can’t can’t follow ordinances from the 58 counties is odd. Ordinances are law. How can Caltrans do this? Perhaps Caltrans is not as inept as folks thought. I am confused. Caltrans hires drillers but as far as I know, DWR hires contract drillers. Why is Yolo County (yes, I think You Only Live Once also) in discussions with DWR? They should go straight to the licensed drillers and go after their license. This is akin to a licensed house builder not getting a county building permit. Why is Yolo County so feeble? Maybe Caltrans Legal should talk to DWR Legal. Why are we as taxpayers paying for two sets or lawyers to look at the same issue? Good god, suck it up and talk with each other. Shame on DWR if they never call Caltrans Legal. We all want the same thing from all of this. Protect the groundwater that we are all (most of us anyways) are drinking. Next up? Oil Drillers and their continued pollution of ground water from fracking, then farmers who use too much fertilizer so that nitrogen has made its way into our aquifers. Listen folks, sit back and be silent and suffer the consequences or speak up and be heard. I get that Calwatchdog has only a few followers but speak up with Sac Bee or some other source. Water is the next gold. We all want groundwater to be clean and available for our kids.

    Reply this comment
    • In The Know
      In The Know 2 September, 2016, 10:54

      Just because thousands of taxpayer dollars are not being paid to Yolo County to enforce the Water Code on its author (DWR) doesn’t mean that the regulations therein are not being followed and groundwater isn’t being protected; they are, and it is.

      Reply this comment
    • In The Know
      In The Know 2 September, 2016, 11:39

      CalTrans has its own drillers and saw no reason to pay itself (the state) for C-57 driller’s licenses requiring it to follow its own state requirements. “Admitting guilt” and paying millions of taxpayer dollars to the counties to protect their image was wrong in my opinion, and a waste of my dollars. Contract drillers (private sector) are required to have state C-57 licenses because they work under the unpredictable direction of whoever hires them. When the state hires and directs the work of contract drillers, like DWR on the Yolo Co project, those contract drillers obviously already have their C-57 licenses, but they are working under the direction of a state agency. And in the case of the Yolo Co project, the directing agency wrote the Water Code, so paying the county to enforce that law on its author makes no sense and wastes our money. So the Caltrans case and the DWR case are similar, but definitely different.

      Reply this comment
  4. Bully
    Bully 18 August, 2016, 20:19

    Shelby, please refresh.
    In my area the 2.5″ borings test for roadway stability and safe bridge underlays?
    Caltrans is now seeking ground water under a lawsuit – Hmm.

    Reply this comment
  5. In The Know
    In The Know 2 September, 2016, 10:31

    I can assure you that DWR’s drilling on the Yolo County project is being performed in accordance with the state Water Code and county requirements, and documented, even though county permits were not purchased. “Purchased” is the operative word here. DWR wrote the Water Code, so paying the counties to enforce it on the agency that wrote it would be a waste of taxpayer money. And DWR having to use legal means to respond to the county’s challenge is also a waste of taxpayer money. Do not buy into the anti-state spin on the minimal and marginally accurate and questionably obtained information presented in this article.

    Reply this comment

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