ELC Wins Suit Against County to Protect Endangered Coho Salmon

Stanford Environmental Law Clinic students secured a victory for imperiled salmon and steelhead in Marin County Superior Court last week.  The court ruled that Marin County’s countywide development plan lacks adequate protections for the declining species and their habitat.  This ruling is the culmination of the Clinic’s decade-long effort on behalf of clients Salmon Protection and Watershed Network (SPAWN) to advocate for urgently needed habitat restoration and stronger regulation of future development.

Over the past several decades, the population of coho salmon and steelhead trout in the San Geronimo Valley Watershed has rapidly declined due to habitat degradation.  This degradation, primarily the result of development, led California to list the coho salmon as endangered and the steelhead trout as threatened.

The Environmental Law Clinic began representing SPAWN a decade ago after Marin County approved its 2007 Countywide Plan and certified an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) as required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).  SPAWN challenged the EIR’s failure to analyze cumulative environmental impacts on endangered and threatened salmon in the San Geronimo Valley Watershed.  The trial court initially found in favor of the County, but in 2014 the Court of Appeal reversed, agreeing the County failed to adequately analyze cumulative impacts on these fish.  The court ordered the County to set aside the Plan and EIR as they pertained to the San Geronimo Valley Watershed, conduct an adequate cumulative impacts analysis, and describe mitigation measures to mitigate any significant impacts on salmon.

In response to that decision, the Marin County Board of Supervisors re-approved the 2007 Plan and certified a Supplemental EIR in 2019.  The Supplemental EIR found the Plan would indeed have significant negative impacts on salmon habitat, spawning, and survival. But instead of mitigating those impacts, the Supplemental EIR proposed that a future ordinance—to be passed in five or more years—would mitigate those impacts.

The Clinic again filed suit against the County, this time on behalf of both SPAWN and the Center for Biological Diversity.  ELC students Kate Gaumond and Maddie Coles argued this deferred mitigation measure violated CEQA because the County does not have the power to force a Board of Supervisors to legislate; the promise to legislate is unenforceable; the County did not justify its need to defer; and the County did not include performance standards in the Supplemental EIR.

The Superior Court agreed the County failed to justify why it deferred mitigation and failed to include standards for measuring the efficacy of its mitigation efforts.  “This decision represents a major win for our clients,” Maddie Coles said.  “The coho salmon are nearly extinct, and this decision forces the County to actually mitigate development impacts on the salmon’s sensitive habitat. The judge affirmed the importance of California’s environmental protection laws.” Kate Gaumond, a Marin County native, added that “it was extra special to represent a client from my own community and work to protect endangered species that live in my own backyard.”