The Legislature enacted the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in 1970 in an effort to disclose and mitigate the potential environmental damage that certain development projects—such as housing developments and shopping centers—might cause. CEQA requires the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (department) to act as what the law refers to as a responsible agency for many of these development projects. In this role, the department must work with other public agencies, known as lead agencies, to inform decision makers and the public about the potential environmental impacts of the proposed projects and to reduce those environmental impacts to the extent feasible. The department is the highest state authority on California’s fish and wildlife resources and is responsible for issuing permits for projects affecting lake and stream habitat or endangered species; therefore, there is no adequate substitute for the department’s input on a project’s impacts on sensitive habitat and species. Our audit examined whether the department has met its statutory requirements under CEQA and whether it has appropriately managed its available funding to meet its CEQA responsibilities. This report concludes the following:
One of the department’s key roles under CEQA is to provide consultation and commentary to lead agencies when those lead agencies are developing CEQA-related documents. Nonetheless, the department’s project tracking database shows that in 2018 the department responded to only 20 percent of the requests for consultation that it documented receiving from lead agencies. Without early consultation from the department, these lead agencies may be less likely to prepare appropriate and complete CEQA documents. Further, according to regulations, the department should—as a responsible agency—comment on CEQA documents for projects that are within its jurisdiction. However, it seldom provides such comments, even though doing so could make its subsequent permitting process more efficient. Finally, the department has provided its staff with neither policies and procedures for selecting CEQA documents to review nor guidance for conducting those reviews. Without such policies and guidance, the department cannot ensure that its environmental scientists consistently conduct their CEQA reviews and that its staff select for comments the CEQA documents for projects that pose the greatest risk to the State’s fish and wildlife resources.
State law requires the department to impose and collect a filing fee to defray the cost of protecting fish and wildlife resources through CEQA, and it also requires the department to use this fee for CEQA-related activities only. However, from fiscal years 2012–13 through 2016–17, the department spent a total of $5.7 million in CEQA filing fee revenue on non-CEQA activities. Moreover, the department cannot adequately determine the full cost of its CEQA activities because it has not tracked the number of hours staff spend reviewing CEQA documents and performing other CEQA-related tasks. Although state law requires the department to evaluate the cost of its CEQA activities and recommend changes to the CEQA filing fee every five years to ensure that the fees cover its costs, the chief of the Habitat Conservation Planning Branch stated that the department delayed the assessment due in 2017 because of changes to its accounting system and staff turnover. Without an accurate assessment of the resources it uses for the CEQA program, the department cannot accurately determine whether a change in fees is necessary.
Our audit found that the department has created unnecessary delays in its CEQA review process by mailing CEQA documents to its environmental scientists rather than distributing those documents electronically. Staff at the regional offices indicated that it has historically taken one to two weeks for them to receive CEQA documents for review. In addition, the department has paid nearly $30,000 in postage to ship these documents over the last five years. We also determined that although the majority of the department’s revenues are restricted to specific uses, the department might be able to request additional funding from the California Environmental License Plate Fund to support its CEQA activities.
Summary of Recommendations
To ensure that it consistently prioritizes, reviews, and comments on CEQA documents for development projects with potentially significant impacts on the environment, the department should establish a policy by March 2020 for determining the CEQA documents it will review and provide comments on, and by this same date, it should develop policies and procedures outlining its expectations for conducting CEQA review.
To ensure that it complies with state law requiring it to use CEQA fee revenue only for CEQA activities, the department should immediately begin tracking and monitoring its CEQA-related revenues and expenditures separately from its revenues and expenditures for other programs and activities.
To accurately estimate the resources it needs to review all CEQA documents that it receives, the department should implement a timekeeping mechanism by December 2019 that requires staff to track the hours they spend on CEQA-related activities.
The department generally agreed with our recommendations and in some cases provided information on how it would implement them.