By BOB KLOSE Press Democrat Staff Writer
Santa Rosa's pipeline project to The Geysers, scheduled to get under way this summer after 15 years of planning, was dealt a blow Thursday when a judge ruled the city's environmental review was flawed.
The decision is a setback to the city, which had certified the project's $15 million environmental impact report.
Sonoma County Judge Lloyd von der Mehden ruled the report failed to sufficiently consider suggested alternatives on pipeline routes and pumping stations. He also said the report incorrectly relied on city general plans to gauge growth-inducing aspects of the project.
Although the ruling may not be fatal to the $135 million project, it will cause delays and drive up both the cost of the environmental study and the pipeline, city officials said.
Santa Rosa was planning to award the first contract for pipeline work on May 10. Now, the project could be delayed for a few months or up to a year, attorneys for the parties said.
"We are very, very disappointed," said Rene Chouteau, Santa Rosa city attorney. "We felt we had commissioned and received the Cadillac EIR and that it would withstand judicial scrutiny. Now we'll have to go back to fix it."
The decision was a major victory for the Alexander Valley Association, a residents group whose 235 members filed suit two years ago. They challenged the EIR process on the plan to run a pipeline through their Wine Country valley to the geothermal steam fields beneath Geyser Peak in northeast Sonoma County.
The pipeline will be used to dispose of highly treated water from the regional sewage plant that serves Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cotati and Sebastopol.
"It's a huge decision," said Les Perry, lead attorney for the Alexander Valley group. "It means the city's approval of the Geyers recharge alternative has been set aside by the court for a variety of reasons.
"The city spent $15 million on this EIR and put a lot of eggs in this basket," Perry said. "The judge found a number of inadequacies. Some are fixable easily and some are not. Some are fundamental."
Perry said he thinks the ruling will cause at least a year's delay.
Chouteau, however, said he hopes the city can resolve the EIR's shortcomings within a few months and begin work this construction season.
But, he said, if significant new environmental review is necessary, the project could fall behind a year, and the cost will climb.
"There will be a loss of energy that could have been produced with the steam the piped wastewater could produce. And there will be additional costs to do further environmental review," Chouteau said.
The project is one of four options Santa Rosa has been wrestling with for more than 15 years for disposing of wastewater generated by Sonoma County's growing urban population. The city is under orders of state water quality officials to stop pumping even treated wastewater into the Russian River.
Under the Geysers option, 11 million gallons of treated wastewater would be pumped daily through 41 miles of pipe from the Laguna Wastewater Treatment Plant, west of Santa Rosa, to Geyser Peak. There, the water would be pumped into the geothermal fields for steam to produce electricity.
The Alexander Valley Association challenged the EIR in court after its members rejected an agreement with the city for reducing the project's impact on the valley.
"We are very heartened by the judge's decision because it strengthens Alexander Valley's ability to protect itself," said Tim Barnard, Alexander Valley Association president, in a prepared statement.
Von der Mehden issued a tentative decision Thursday in which he found that the city's EIR had failed to meet the provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act in two specific areas raised by the association.
The association's suit contended city environmental planners had failed to give sufficient consideration to alternatives to routes and the placement of pumping stations along the pipeline route.
Von der Mehden agreed.
"The record ... shows that there were various suggestions and comments from interested persons regarding the mitigation measures before the findings were made, including pump station placements, alternative pipeline routes and other measures or alternatives," the judge wrote.
"Nowhere in the EIR or record does the city cite to any explanation of finding why these and other measures as suggested or commented upon by interested persons are not feasible or why they were not adopted ... Hence, the court concludes that the EIR fails as an informative document,and does not comply with the requirements of CEQA."
The judge also agreed with the association's contention that the city incorrectly measured the growth impacts of the project based on general plan growth projections of the cities that are part of the regional wastewater disposal system.
Santa Rosa had argued, the court's ruling said, that the pipeline project was designed to accommodate growth envisioned in the various general plans of member cities, and that the impact of the growth had already been analyzed in those general plans.
But von der Mehden ruled that reliance on the general plans was flawed because those documents were prepared long before there was ever a Geysers project under consideration.
"There is no showing that the Geysers project was even addressed or known at the time the general plan EIRs were approved," the judge said.
Although the court's ruling is a tentative one, Chouteau said it is unlikely von der Mehden will entertain any reconsideration.
The city plans to schedule a hearing before the judge as soon as possible to begin addressing the court's objections. Chouteau said issues involving pipeline and pump station alternatives and other considerations have already been addressed in subsequent environmental reviews prepared after the association's lawsuit was filed.
Those studies hare under legal challenge by the group too, but Chouteau said he hopes those documents will satisfy those issues.
The question of how the city measures the growth-inducing aspects of the project may take more time, however.
"At a minimum we have to get back into court and seek further guidance on these issues," Chouteau said, who remained confident despite the setback.
"We have a project and it is a good project. The judge did not say the 24 volumes were to be thrown out. He identified areas where we need further work. We'll do what we need to do to fix it," he said.