In Protecting Our Water & Environmental Resources v. County of Stanislaus, the Supreme Court today holds that issuing some water well construction permits is a ministerial action that doesn’t require review under the California Environmental Quality Act.  On the other hand, CEQA review is necessary for those permits that are approved as a matter of a public agency’s discretion.

The court’s unanimous opinion by Justice Carol Corrigan delves into the distinction between ministerial and discretionary actions.  It concludes that a County’s sometime authority to require a different well location or to deny a permit “is sufficient latitude to make the issuance of a permit discretionary, at least when particular circumstances require County to exercise that authority.”  However, a permit approval is ministerial “[i]f the circumstances of a particular project do not require the exercise of independent judgment,” such as when there is no contamination source identified near a proposed well.

The court reverses the Fifth District Court of Appeal, which had held that all well permits were discretionary and required CEQA review.