Sonoma City Council tables climate action

The City of Sonoma’s battle against climate change has reached a stalemate.

That’s the way things were left Aug. 15 when the Sonoma City Council tabled discussion of its plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions in light of a lawsuit filed last week by environmentalists against the Sonoma County Regional Climate Protection Authority. The lawsuit was filed by a Sebastopol-based group called California River Watch which alleges that the County’s “Climate Action Plan” (CAP), a program partnered with the City of Sonoma to meet state mandated greenhouse gas levels, is woefully undercounting the amount of greenhouse gases produced by what the group describes as the County’s fuel-driven wine and tourism industry.

The eco brouhaha stems from countywide efforts launched back in 2008 to meet state-required targets of reducing greenhouse gas levels to 25 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2020, with a longer-term goal of reaching 80 percent below that level by 2050. In 2013, the City of Sonoma joined what the county’s Regional Climate Protection Authority (RCPA) now calls its Climate Action 2020 program, a collaborative effort among the County and all nine of its cities to take measurable steps to reach those GHG targets.

At its Monday meeting, the City Council was set to consider eight Sonoma-specific steps to add to the Climate Action Plan – most of them incentives to encourage Sonomans to lower their carbon footprints. Those measures include ways to encourage solar installations, water conservation methods and restrictions on idling cars. But in the River Watch lawsuit, which challenges the EIR findings in support of the climate action plan, attorneys Jack Silver and Jerry Bernhaut charge that many of those and other similar CAP measures would have shaky implementation rates, are unenforceable and fail to provide evidence that they would set the County on a path to meet its GHG goals.

In a statement about the lawsuit, Bernhaut claims the climate action plan “substantially” understates greenhouse gas emissions from “vehicle miles traveled in the global distribution of wine produced in Sonoma County and from vehicle miles traveled to and from tourist destinations.”

“The CAP was designed to promote the illusion that the County and cities can continue to approve permits for new vineyards, wineries, hotels and other tourist destinations while reduc(ing) GHG emissions, by adopting green building codes… some of which are defined in terms that raise questions about their implementation and real effects,” says Bernhaut.

The California River Watch lawsuit specifically challenges the County’s environmental impact report for the CAP program which, according to the suit filed with Sonoma County Superior Court July 9, contains a “systematic underestimation of CHG emissions” from on-road transportation.

According to a City staff report, Sonoma’s Climate Action 2020 plan, if updated with the eight new measures, would improve the town’s GHG reductions by 54 percent over the next five years.

But in light of the lawsuit, and on the advice of City Attorney Jeffrey Walter, the council on Monday unanimously voted to pull the item from discussion.

Caitlin Cornwall, program manager for the Sonoma Ecology Center who was in attendance in support of Climate Action 2020, said the lawsuit only slows the pressing need to decrease GHGs.

“For the last five years we’ve been researching the hazards of climate change – it’s terrifying,” said Cornwall. “Every delay is a harm against our future.”

Bernhaut, however, denied at the meeting that California River Watch’s legal action is preventing the City from enacting green legislation. “However our lawsuit turns out,” said Bernhaut, “there is nothing stopping the city with going forward with green-use issues.”

Sonoma resident Chris Petlock wasn’t so sure. “Talk about a nickel holding up a dollar,” was his turn of phrase – though River Watch critics would argue it’s the other way around, and that dollars are really what’s holding things up.

Founded in 1996 by attorney Jack Silver, California River Watch is, according to its website, an environmental group with a mission to “protect water quality” in the state’s various watersheds.

The group’s critics see it a different way, with opponents alleging that River Watch takes advantage of environmental laws to file lawsuits and reach monetary settlements.

According to a Santa Rosa Press Democrat story from 2002, “the law allows Silver and River Watch to collect attorney’s and other fees if they prevail in court or persuade those being sued to reach out-of-court settlements.” The PD reported that Silver, as of 2002, had collected “at least $310,000 in attorney’s fees since 2000, often for environmental violations that were already in the process of being remedied.”

According to its website,, the group has settled 40 lawsuits, alleging violations of the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and other environmental legislation. Currently CRW has five active lawsuits listed on its website, one of them also against the County of Sonoma in opposition of water agency plans to fluoridate water.

Bernhaut, however, brushes off any allegations that River Watch misuses environmental law for financial gain.

“That’s a standard line people can say about environmental lawsuits,” Bernhaut, a Sonoma Valley resident, said by phone this week. “I don’t think it’s true. It’s a solid environmental organization; a small local environmental group - it does not have money to pay attorneys’ fees.”

Bernhaut said the group’s primary issue is that the conclusions of the CAP EIR “are not supported by substantial evidence in the record.”

“If we keep on building more hotels and have people getting on more planes, the mitigation they’re including in those programs, even if they work well, are not going to offset all those additional (climate) impacts,” said Bernhaut.

And will River Watch be seeking a settlement?

“Part of what will happen under CEQA is a mandatory settlement conference,” said Bernhaut. “We’re demanding certain changes, if the RCPA is willing to make them we’ll reach a settlement.”

Added Bernhaut: “If money was the issue, I wouldn’t be working on this case.”

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