ECORP staff attended the 2023 Association of Environmental Professionals (AEP) annual conference, “Mountain Vibes & Lake Blues,” in Lake Tahoe from Sunday April 23 through Wednesday April 26, 2023. Conference attendees included Chris Stabenfeldt and Nathan Hallam from the Rocklin office and Scott Friend, Seth Meyers, and new Senior Planner Crystal Mainolfi from the Chico office.
This year’s conference saw the highest number of participants, some 650 attendees (a typical year has 450) and, according to Chris, “considerably more public sector attendees than we typically see. Partially a reflection of location and strong industry performance over the past several years.” Due to the epic snow year in the Sierra Nevada, the conference site was winter-like despite spring temperatures. ECORP’s own Chris Stabenfeldt kicked off the conference Sunday evening with a rocking set from his band, Wealth of Nations, including original songs and covers of Grateful Dead and Prince songs.
The hot topics at the conference included water resources planning, climate action and adaptation, fire evacuation, renewable energy, habitat restoration and the trials and tribulations of VMT analysis.
The topic of rapidly changing technology pervaded the sessions, including how and where Artificial Intelligence (AI) may be useful in the environmental review process despite, according to Scott, “We have zero policy guidance regarding AI and no one knows how to use it yet.” The conference consensus was that AI will be as revolutionary as the internet – how ECORP can utilize this technology in the near future is one of the important “big picture” discussion points coming out of this year’s conference.
Evolving technology was discussed in mitigation measure sessions. Presenters emphasized the need to design CEQA project mitigation measures for adaptability/flexibility, emphasizing the need to acknowledge that technological advances may change how mitigation measures are achieved over the course of implementation. Scott summarized, “Define the outcome, timing, and responsibility of mitigation measures and not the process. Also contemplate that a receptor or a generator of impacts could cease with advancing technology.”
Wildfire management (from developing Project hardening and evacuation plans to hazard mitigation) is benefiting from advancing technology. Several session presenters discussed a new software tool for predicting wildfire threats and coordinating fire planning for land management that enables parties across jurisdictions to collaborate and rapidly assess the current resilience of, and risk to, landscapes and communities; create and compare treatment scenarios at any scale; and make informed, ready-to-implement fire management decisions in near real-time. The software uses high-resolution, three-dimensional datasets – including satellite imagery and LiDAR – coupled with infrastructure data to identify key inputs such as homes and utility locations. One of these products is called Land Tender.
The state Office of Planning and Research (OPR) discussed another imminent technological change during a session announcing its plans to overhaul CEQANet over the next year. OPR is soliciting input from users about what UI/UX and improvements to the program should be incorporated into the next manifestation of the site. Attendees suggested a GIS mapping interface, searches by mitigation measure type, and the ability to submit documents with a specified later review period, so that authors and publishers do not have to “scramble” to notice documents at the beginning of a public review. The survey can be found here: https://www.surveymonkey/r/AEP2023OPR
Nathan Hallam participated in a mobile workshop to Trout Creek led by the Town of Truckee’s Public Works Director. Over many years, manmade historical modifications to the creek’s geomorphology caused Trout Creek to become a flood hazard for Truckee and restricted the movement of fish and wildlife along the stream. The town began a restoration project of this creek in 2008, replacing culverts with bridges to free up the ditch’s flood flows, designing a meandering channel instead of a trapezoidal earthen ditch for a wider riparian corridor, and used tree trunks set in the streambed to stabilize the channel instead of boulder riprap to benefit aquatic habitat. These steam-course improvements, along with new systems to treat local runoff into Trout Creek have improved water quality in the creek.
This restoration project is expected to continue until 2030 and coincide with mixed-use redevelopment of the town’s railyard.
SFPUC/Hetch Hetchy Pipeline
Crystal Mainolfi attended an interesting session about the successes and challenges of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s (SFPUC’s) habitat restoration efforts along the Hetch Hetchy pipeline in the Bay Area. After struggling with introducing plant diseases into their restoration sites via infected nursery stock, the SFPUC created their own native plant nursery, producing their own restoration materials from seed.
The plant disease that infected the nursery stock is of the genera Phytophthora, plant-damaging oomycetes (water molds) whose member species cause enormous economic losses of crops worldwide, as well as environmental damage in natural ecosystems. Sudden Oak Death (SOD) is a caused by a Phytophthora species, Phytophthora ramorum. With very strict SOPs for disease prevention at their nursery, the SFPUC has enjoyed three years of disease-free plant production and, as a result, increased restoration success in the field.
Another takeaway from many of the sessions is that there is a disconnect between state policies designed to streamline certain types of projects (housing, energy, telecommunications) and the CEQA review process. Many state mandates for streamlining such projects are being blocked at the local level by local opposition (NIMBYism) and an onerous CEQA process if a local agency is not in support.
AB 205 seeks to rectify this conflict for solar, wind, and storage project proponents by enabling proponents to supersede the local jurisdictional authority and use the California Energy Commission (CEC) as the lead agency for CEQA review. Chris said that recent ECORP proposals for energy storage projects include a line item to analyze whether a project proponent should pursue CEC or the local jurisdiction as a lead agency or not.
Chris attended a session on utilizing the Statewide Vegetation Treatment Plan Program EIR for focused analysis of vegetation management projects. Despite a streamlined review process under this program, biological and cultural resources surveys of treatment areas are still required and represent a potential growth area for ECORP given our strong bio and cultural capabilities. To date, about eight evaluations have been completed to date under the program ranging from 50 acres to 1,600 acres.
The big discussion at the conference-closing CEQA update session was the controversy regarding the UC Berkeley housing proposal for People’s Park. When the appellate court found the project EIR insufficient, the court’s decision elicited calls for CEQA reform from state legislators and the governor. Although the UC Regents argued that a student housing development did not constitute a new point-source for noise impacts, the appellate court found that the EIR did not adequately address the impacts of student “party” noise, an on-going nuisance issue throughout the community surrounding the CAL campus.