The Natural Resources Defense Council has sued San Bernardino County and the cities of Chino Hills, Rancho Cucamonga and Redlands, alleging all four governmental entities failed to submit water conservation reports required by the state for three consecutive years.
There is a suggestion that the county and the three cities were singled out as guinea pigs to determine if a slew of similar suits can be employed against more than 55 percent of the state’s 542 cities, towns and counties. San Bernardino County, Chino Hills, Rancho Cucamonga and Redlands are “named respondents” in the complaint and approximately 300 cities and counties are in the “proposed respondent” class.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, known by the acronym NRDC, is a non-profit environmental organization established in 1970 with offices in Santa Monica, San Francisco, states other than California and offshore.
Represented by San Francisco-based attorneys Barbara Chisholm and Merideth Johnson, the NRDC contends in the suit that there has been “widespread failure of hundreds of cities and counties throughout California, including San Bernardino County and the cities of Chino Hills, Rancho Cucamonga and Redlands, to report annually on the results of their permitting programs for new irrigated landscapes and major renovations of irrigated landscapes, in violation of state law, as set forth in Section 495 of Chapter 2.7 of Title 23 of the California Code of Regulations. The use of landscaping in urban areas provides significant benefits to the quality of life in California. Urban landscapes can offer fire protection, prevent erosion, clean the air and water, replace ecosystems lost due to development, and provide areas for recreation. However, the use of landscaping in urban areas also requires a significant amount of water. Roughly half of California’s potable water supply is used for urban landscape irrigation. Substantial water savings can be gained through water-efficient landscape design and proper installation. Such water-efficiency measures help to make more effective use of current water supplies and to enhance California’s resilience to drought conditions in the future.”
According to the suit, “Since 2015, the state has required cities and counties to report on their local landscape permitting programs. This reporting requirement is a key element in a broader set of requirements imposed on cities and counties pursuant to the Water Conservation in Landscaping Act, and its implementing regulations. The Act, passed in 1990, is intended to promote ‘the conservation and efficient use of water and to prevent the waste of this valuable resource.’ Under the Act, California cities and counties are required to meet certain water efficiency standards in landscaping by either adopting, implementing, and enforcing the Department of Water Resources’ Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance, known as the model ordinance, or a comparably effective local ordinance. The Act thus places the responsibility on local governments, not water suppliers or users, to ensure that new irrigated landscapes in their jurisdictions are designed and installed to be water-efficient. In 2014, then-Governor Edmund G. Brown proclaimed a state of emergency throughout California due to the severe drought conditions, and in 2015, as part of the state’s response to the drought, then-Governor Brown issued Executive Order B-29-15, which directed the Department of Water Resources to revise the model ordinance. As so revised, the 2015 version of the model ordinance sets more stringent water efficiency requirements, which are necessary to address the increasingly critical need to avoid waste and excessive use of drinking water supplies in California.”
According to the suit, “This petition does not challenge any particular jurisdiction’s failure to adopt or enforce the model ordinance or a comparably effective local ordinance. Instead, it challenges the widespread failure of respondents and numerous other cities and counties throughout California to comply with the ministerial duty to submit annual reports to the Department of Water Resources, as required by the water efficiency reporting requirement. The continued failure by respondents and members of the proposed respondent class to comply with this ministerial duty of providing information that enables the state and the public to assess compliance with water efficiency standards cannot be countenanced in the face of the worsening threats of drought and water insecurity in this state. During the state’s most recent drought, the state’s water supply became severely depleted, with record low snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, decreased water levels in reservoirs, reduced flows in rivers, and shrinking water supplies in groundwater basins. The drought conditions caused severe problems, including drinking water shortages in communities across the state, diminished water for agricultural production, degraded habitat for many fish and wildlife species, depleted groundwater, and increased risk of subsidence and wildfires, among other harmful effects.”
The suit states, “On information and belief, named respondent San Bernardino County failed to submit annual reports regarding its water efficient landscape ordinance, and implementation and enforcement of that ordinance, for the calendar years 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.”
The suit states, “On information and belief, named respondent City of Chino Hills failed to submit annual reports regarding its water efficient landscape ordinance, and implementation and enforcement of that ordinance, for the calendar years 2015, 2016, and 2017.”
The suit states, “On information and belief, named respondent City of Rancho Cucamonga failed to submit annual reports regarding its water efficient landscape ordinance, and implementation and enforcement of that ordinance, for the calendar years 2015 and 2016.”
The suit states, “On information and belief, named respondent City of Redlands failed to submit annual reports regarding its water efficient landscape ordinance, and implementation and enforcement of that ordinance, for the calendar years 2015, 2016, and 2017.”
Neither Rancho Cucamonga City Attorney Jim Markman nor Redlands City Attorney Dan McHugh responded to requests from the Sentinel for comment on the suit.
Chino Hills City Attorney Mark Hensley told the Sentinel, “The City of Chino Hills had met all of the necessary requirements re: water conservation activities (it did so timely over the years) but did not submit the reports prior to the lawsuit being filed. The city has subsequently filed all of the necessary reports. The city has an excellent record re: water conservation activities and actual conservation of water. The city was really surprised that NRDC filed its lawsuit as the city had communicated to the NRDC in November that it had complied with all of the conservation requirements and would have the reports out shortly.”
San Bernardino County Spokesman David Wert told the Sentinel, “This lawsuit has nothing to do with public health or safety or even water availability. This lawsuit is simply about an obscure and relatively new reporting requirement that the county and apparently most local agencies in the state didn’t even know about. The county is now working to become compliant going forward. It is unfortunate that this fund-raising organization chose to waste public resources and seek publicity for itself by filing lawsuits rather than just advising cities and counties of the mandate and providing them with a reasonable opportunity to comply. The county would have gladly been in compliance had it known about the new requirement.”