On August 27, 2020, in Protecting Our Water and Environmental Resources v. County of Stanislaus, Case No. S251709 (“Protecting Our Water”), the California Supreme Court held that the County in that instance could not categorically classify its issuance of groundwater well construction permits as ministerial decisions exempt from environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) (Pub. Resources Code, §§ 21000 et seq.). While the Court’s Opinion does not state that all well permits must undergo CEQA review, it narrows the grounds on which the ministerial exemption may apply. And since county well ordinances across the State comprise similar provisions, this ruling upsets the common practice of treating such permits as ministerial, not subject to CEQA. More importantly, however, the Court’s ruling interrupts a growing trend in the cases to provide some relief from CEQA where agencies lack sufficient discretion, and creates uncertainty for lead agencies by holding that ministerial permitting decisions must be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
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