Reasons for Exemption
A. Actions to Prevent or Mitigate an Emergency
California Public Resources Code, Division 13, Section 21080(b)(4) provides that specific actions necessary to prevent or mitigate an emergency are exempt from CEQA. The emergency conditions are due to the drastic reduction of potential Eel River water imports through the PVP resulting from the inoperability of the powerhouse for the foreseeable future. The volume of imported Eel River water that can be transferred with the powerhouse being inoperable results in little or no correlation between cumulative inflow into Lake Pillsbury and the hydrologic condition in the Russian River. Without the proposed changes, the applicable minimum instream flow requirements may require releases of water from Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma at levels that would risk significant depletions of storage to severely low levels. Such depletions in storage could cause serious impacts to human health and welfare and reduce water supplies needed for fishery protection.
These emergency conditions also are demonstrated by Governor Newsom’s April 21, 2021 proclamation of a drought emergency in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties due to drought conditions in the Russian River Watershed (Governor’s Drought Proclamation). Section 7 of the Governor’s Drought Proclamation suspends the requirements of CEQA for purposes of the State Water Board’s consideration of modifying reservoir releases based on a representative hydrologic index, which would be a necessary element of an order granting the TUCP. The Governor has continued that proclamation for Sonoma and Mendocino Counties through further drought proclamations on May 10, July 8 and October 19, 2021.
In addition, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on April 27, 2021, proclaimed a local emergency due to drought conditions in the Sonoma County Operational Area (most recently continued on November 2, 2021) and the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors April 20, 2021, adopted a resolution declaring a local emergency and imminent threat of disaster in Mendocino County due to drought conditions.
B. Actions by Regulatory Agencies for Protection of Natural Resources and the Environment
CEQA Guidelines Sections 15307 and 15308 provide that actions taken by regulatory agencies to assure the maintenance, restoration or enhancement of a natural resource and the environment are categorically exempt. Sonoma Water is proposing temporary urgency changes to its water right Permits 12947A, 12949, 12950, and 16596 that the State Water Resources Control Board, as the regulatory agency, will consider and potentially approve. Those changes are necessary in order to maintain viable operations to support municipal use, protect listed salmon species, address water supply conditions at Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma, and prevent Lake Mendocino from declining to a storage level at which the reservoir may no longer be functional in light of the extremely dry hydrology the region experienced in water years 2020 and 2021. Approval of the TUCP would provide alternative storage thresholds and criteria for determining minimum instream flow requirements for the Russian River that would be based on a more accurate assessment of water supply conditions in the Russian River watershed. This would result in minimum instream flow requirements that more likely can be sustained with releases from Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma without severely depleting storage.
C. Governor’s Drought Proclamation
Government Code section 8571 authorizes the Governor to suspend certain regulatory requirements, including CEQA, under emergency conditions. Section 7 of the Governor’s April 21 Drought Proclamation suspended CEQA to address “the acutely dry conditions in the Russian River Watershed” through the State Water Board’s consideration of modifications of reservoir releases “to ensure adequate, minimal water supplies for critical purposes.” The Governor later issued drought proclamations on May 10, July 8 and October 19, 2021, but section 7 of his April 21 proclamation remains in effect. The TUCP’s purpose is to modify the storage thresholds from Lake Pillsbury to Lake Mendocino to be used as the hydrologic index to determine the water supply condition in the Russian River watershed and is within the suspension of CEQA under section 7 of the Governor’s Drought Proclamation.