By Erik Schmidt, Regulatory Specialist
Law Provides for Initial 3-year Period with CDFW Oversight
California continues to break new ground in efforts to accelerate critical habitat and ecosystem restoration projects with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) Statutory Exemption for Restoration Projects (SERP). The exemption is a key part of the California Natural Resources Agency’s Cutting the Green Tape Initiative, a coordinated vision to make implementation of environmentally beneficial projects simpler and more cost-effective. By reducing barriers and better coordinating state funding and regulatory processes, the initiative aims to conserve and enhance the state’s unparalleled biodiversity and improve climate resilience through habitat restoration.
Authorized by SB 155 and signed by the Governor in 2021, the law establishes a three-year period for use of the exemption by lead public agencies. These agencies can include state agencies, boards and commissions, and county, city, and regional agencies and districts, including open space or parks districts and Resource Conservation Districts (RCDs). The CEQA statutory exemption sunsets on January 1, 2025, so it is intended to be an initial test of improving environmental review while maintaining strict regulatory oversight and design guidelines for beneficial habitat projects.
California Tiger Salamander, a species affected by the new CEQA SERPs.
The SERP allows a lead agency to make a determination that a fish and wildlife habitat restoration project is exempt from the provisions and requirements of CEQA. This is a sea change for restoration proponents, as the challenge of completing an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) or Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) to comply with CEQA can be a significant cost and time hurdle for grant-funded projects on limited budgets.
To qualify for the SERP, the project must be exclusively for habitat conservation, though it can have other incidental public benefits such as public access and recreation. All construction activities, notably, must be for the purpose of habitat restoration. This means that, at least in this initial iteration, the SERP is not intended to be applied to multi-benefit projects such as levee setbacks, floodplain reconnection or expansion, or highway improvements benefiting natural resources — where a non-habitat goal such as flood reduction or transportation enhancement is integral to the project.
Once the lead agency determines that the SERP is applicable to a restoration project, it must submit an application to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), via the agency’s EPIMS electronic submittal form. Applicants should note that they are strongly advised by CDFW to communicate with staff prior to submitting a SERP concurrence request, to avoid spending time and resources on a CEQA pathway that may not be appropriate.
Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse, a species affected by the new CEQA SERPs.
Applications should include necessary supporting information, such as the project objectives and methods, expected outcomes, and technical studies and science the determination is based upon. In turn, CDFW will then provide a concurrence decision within a timeline anticipated to be around 90 days. Already, CDFW has issued its first approval of a SERP determination, made by the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, for a project by The Nature Conservancy to restore a half-mile of river and floodplain rearing habitat for salmon and steelhead in the Garcia River estuary.
For more information on the new CEQA statutory exemption, or to learn whether your project may be eligible for the SERP or other restoration permits and authorizations, please reach out to Erik Schmidt, our Regulatory Permitting Specialist with extensive experience working with state and federal approvals for habitat projects.