Programmatic permitting can reduce mitigation costs, cut staff and consultant time, reduce or eliminate resource agency permit reviews, and minimize risk to a project’s schedule and budget.
Programmatic permits provides cities, counties, and utilities a way to significantly streamline regulatory permitting for projects that can have potential temporary or permanent impacts to state and federal streambeds and wetlands. These permits typically cover regional or agency-wide operations and maintenance (O&M) activities. A few agencies are including capital improvements.
Without a programmatic permit, projects can involve a time-consuming process to obtain permits from the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG), Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB), and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Each activity requires a jurisdictional delineation report, biological resources report, compliance under the California Environmental Quality Act (Notice of Exemption or Mitigated Negative Declaration), preparing and submitting permit applications, identifying mitigation, and coordinating with the resource agencies.
Additionally, mitigation satisfying each agency’s requirements must be purchased to fulfill the permit conditions. If the activity is considered annual maintenance, this process can be required every year or two.
The Benefits of a Programmatic Approach
Saves Money. Mitigation only needs to be conducted once for each activity covered for the extent of the permit. For example, conducting yearly vegetation removal in a stormwater channel during a 5-year permit requires a single up-front mitigation instead of five separate annual efforts. Costs are significantly reduced, especially as mitigation options become scarcer and more expensive over time. Using an average cost of $20,000 per acre of mitigation, this approach could save $80,000 over a 5-year period for each 0.3 to 0.5 acre of impacts to state and federal jurisdictional waters.
Staff and consultant time are reduced for preparing technical reports and CEQA documents, identifying mitigation, and negotiating with the resource agencies. Implementing a programmatic approach requires a larger budget upfront to address all potential projects to be conducted over the following 5 years. However, a cost analysis prepared by Dudek’s regulatory staff using as an example 10 O&M projects per year for 5 years indicates that the programmatic permits could save agencies approximately $400,000 in consultant time and permit fees.
Saves Time. One of the biggest unknowns involved with obtaining resource agency permit authorizations is the length of time involved before the activity can be conducted. With programmatic permits, an agency can establish reduced review timeframes or no review for each activity ahead of time, depending on how the programmatic permit conditions are structured.
Without a programmatic permit, a simple project (with less than 0.5 acre of impacts) can take 6 months even under the Permit Streamlining Act that mandates specific review timeframes for state agencies. A larger project or one located within a highly sensitive area may involve a year or more.
Although emergency projects may be conducted under the CEQA emergency exemption and the USACE, RWQCB, and CDFG emergency permit programs, the resource agencies’ definition of an emergency can be strict and the emergency may only be stabilized—long-term solutions may not be authorized without additional permits.
Provides Budget & Schedule Assurance. Programmatic permits assure that necessary O&M activities and capital improvements can move forward as needed without the unknowns involved with permit negotiations and locating available mitigation that will satisfy the resource agencies’ requirements.
Even a small project can require a year or more if there is public opposition, state or federal endangered species are found to occupy the site, or there are cultural resources that may be impacted. These factors are unknown until the technical studies are prepared and the CEQA document is circulated for public comment when the permits are obtained on an individual basis.
Obtaining programmatic permits ahead of time ensures that the risks to O&M and project budgets and schedules are minimized to the extent possible.
4 Keys to Succeeding with Programmatic Permitting
- Determine the scope of your program upfront. Do you want it to cover endangered species and cultural resources? Will you include capital improvements or do you just have a simple set of ongoing maintenance activities to cover? Are any projects located within the coastal zone? Scoping the extent of your permit program upfront with a knowledgeable regulatory specialist will ensure that all required technical studies, CEQA/NEPA compliance issues, and cost and timing implications are evaluated to best serve your agency’s goals.
- Prepare an O&M Plan to describe the equipment that will be used, activity area, schedule, and hours that the work will be conducted. Be sure to include your maintenance staff in the final drafting and approval of this document so that there are no surprises or changes to your permits further in the process and your final permits cover all activities that can be identified at the time of issuance.
- Involve the resource agencies early and get their concurrence on your approach. Programmatic permits also reduce resource agency staff time so the upper management and staff at the CDFG, USACE, and RWQCB are interested in supporting agencies in developing their approach and identifying mitigation.
- Look for larger scale, but cost-effective, mitigation opportunities. For larger mitigation projects, typically less expensive approaches include: mitigation through purchase and third-party preservation of existing lands, an agreement with another agency to conduct restoration on their lands (e.g., park land or other managed wildlands), or contracting larger enhancement efforts through an in-lieu fee provider (e.g., the Resource Conservation Districts).