Protecting & Strengthening California’s Environmental ‘Bill of Rights’

150 150 John Guenther

The CEQA environmental review process was used to find a balanced solution to water diversion plans affecting Mono Lake.
(Photo Credit:
Richard Harrison/Flickr)

CEQA in the 21st Century– a series of news stories and individual perspectives designed to educate and spark dialogue on CEQA as the California Legislature revisits the role the environmental law will play in the future of our economy.

Signed into law by Governor Ronald Reagan, protecting California’s environment and communities for more than 40 years through booms and busts, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) seems a bewildering target for singling out by many in the Legislature as a boogeyman in need of immediate slaying. And yet, here we are (again), responding to claims that this most foundational environmental law in our beautiful – yet ecologically fragile – state is holding us back.  

With the focus in Sacramento yet again on reforming, modernizing or gutting (depending on your perspective) CEQA, the Planning and Conservation League is devoting our annual Legislative Symposium this Saturday, January 12, to exploring how CEQA currently works, while hearing from proponents and critics of the law as to how it can work better. The event will focus on CEQA’s interaction with water, energy, and land-use planning, among many other CEQA-related topics. We seek to have a robust discussion among participants with a wide range of perspectives about how CEQA can function as effectively as possible, while also exploring other policies that get less attention but may play a greater role in hindering sound planning in California. 

While anxious to explore how the law can be bettered, PCL remains steadfast in our belief that CEQA encompasses core values that are too precious to legislate away with the promise of ‘better’ environmental laws and regulations that often don’t provide the protections Californians currently enjoy through CEQA.  

First and foremost, CEQA (unlike many laws) allows communities to have meaningful input on projects that will impact them most directly. Indeed, the law could be strengthened to provide even more transparency by requiring translation, more electronic noticing, and the like. Already, through recent CEQA exemptions, communities have lost their voice on many types of projects that could expose residents to a variety of toxic threats.

Next, CEQA (again, unlike most other laws) provides a centralized review process that looks at the cumulative and long-term effects of projects. Take this away, as has been proposed by some, and environmental review would look only at the pieces but not the entire puzzle.

Finally, as the nation’s foremost environmental review law, CEQA makes projects better. Meeting minimum standards of other laws may be easier in the short-term for a developer, but giving the public a chance to provide input to creatively improve a project beyond those standards is offered only by CEQA. We could meet checkbox adequacy, or we could strive for thoughtful projects that bring us more benefits in the long-term.

It is for all these reasons that many – PCL included – view CEQA as California’s most vital environmental law…even 43 years after its passage. Yet, we also want to ensure the law functions as effectively as possible. That is why we invite controversy, honesty, and creativity to our Symposium, and for those who will not be attending, we invite you to view the brainstorming afterwards on our website. Towards a California with a strong democracy, healthy environment, and thriving economy!


John Guenther

All stories by: John Guenther