Baykeeper Update

Appeal Court Rules Public Trust Must Be Considered in Sand Mining Suit

An appeal court has ruled that San Francisco Baykeeper has the right to bring a lawsuit over claims that sand mining harms the public trust—the public’s right to access natural resources—in our lawsuit to stop excessive sand mining in San Francisco Bay. Too much sand is already being mined, disrupting the Bay’s ecosystem and contributing to erosion of Ocean Beach.

Baykeeper filed a lawsuit in November 2012 against the California State Lands Commission to overturn its decision to permit a large increase in sand mining in San Francisco Bay. Baykeeper argued that the decision both fails to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires state and local agencies to identify and mitigate the environmental impacts of their actions, and violates the public trust doctrine because of the resulting damage to the Bay and Ocean Beach, natural resources that should be protected for use by the public.

Instead, the State Lands Commission has argued that selling sand from the Bay to private mining companies is an appropriate use of this resource, and in fact depleting the entire remaining amount of sand from the floor of the Bay is within the scope of acceptable public trust use.

In July, the San Francisco Superior Court held that Baykeeper had no right to assert public trust violations as part of this case. Baykeeper appealed and quickly obtained a ruling from the California Court of Appeal that our public trust claims should be heard.

This decision is especially important for protecting the public’s ability to enforce its rights under the public trust doctrine, which requires certain resources—including the California coastline and floor of San Francisco Bay—to be held in trust by the State for the benefit of the people. Had the Superior Court’s ruling not been overturned by the Court of Appeal, public access to the courts to enforce this ancient common law doctrine would have been severely restricted.

Now, the Superior Court case will proceed, considering both our claims that the approval of excessive sand mining violates California environmental laws, and that it violates the public trust by failing to protect the Bay and Ocean Beach.

Beaches outside the Golden Gate, like Ocean Beach, are naturally replenished by sand that washes out of the Bay over time. Ocean Beach is eroding in part because sand mining is depleting the amount of sediment flowing out the Golden Gate from upstream sources in the Delta and Sierra Nevada mountains. Further erosion from increased sand mining could threaten the Great Highway, cause a major San Francisco sewer line to rupture, and wash away sensitive habitat for shorebirds.

Excessive sand mining also damages the Bay’s ecosystem. Sand is mined by scooping it from the floor of the Bay, impacting bottom-dwelling invertebrates and shellfish. The mining area is mostly between the San Francisco waterfront and Angel Island, which is used by juvenile Dungeness crab, sturgeon, and other important Bay species.

We’ll keep you updated on our continuing effort to require better protections for the Bay against excessive sand mining.