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California Department of Fish and Wildlife
It Is Not Fulfilling Its Responsibilities Under the California Environmental Quality Act

Report Number: 2018-119

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The Department Has Failed to Meet Its Obligations as a Responsible Agency Under CEQA

Key Points

The Department Has Not Consistently Consulted and Commented on Development Projects, Allowing Lead Agencies to Approve Projects Without Its Input

Although lead agencies do not always request early consultation, the department often does not respond when they do. State law requires the lead agency to consult with the responsible agencies in the preliminary phase of a development project. When the department is a responsible agency for a project, regulations require that it respond to a consultation request to help ensure that the lead agency prepares the appropriate CEQA document.2 However, the department enters only some consultation requests it receives in its project tracking database. For example, an administrative staff member from one of the department’s regions explained that she enters all consultation requests the office receives through email or mail; however, she is not always aware of requests by phone and thus does not enter them. Once staff enter requests into the project tracking database, they then may enter the department’s responses to the requests, if any.

According to the information in the database, the department responded to only 100 of around 500 (20 percent) documented requests for consultation it received from lead agencies in 2018. In some cases, the department cited in the database insufficient time as its reason for not responding to the requests. Frequently, however, the department did not record any reason for not responding to a consultation request. The Chief of the Habitat Conservation Planning Branch (conservation branch chief) stated that the department’s low rate of response might be due to a number of different issues, including insufficient staff time and incomplete data in the database. According to one of the department’s environmental scientist supervisors, staff at his regional office prioritize early consultation because making changes to projects is easier during the preliminary phase. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that the department may not have the staff resources to respond to every early consultation request it receives.

Without early consultation from the department, a lead agency cannot ensure that it will prepare an appropriate and complete CEQA document, which could lead to challenges in the final phase of CEQA review. Regulations require the department to help the lead agency determine whether a project may significantly affect the environment, in which case the lead agency must prepare or contract for the preparation of an environmental impact report; otherwise, the lead agency must prepare a negative declaration. Without the department’s input, the lead agency may inappropriately determine that a project will not significantly affect the environment and prepare the wrong document. Regulations require responsible agencies to take action if they deem a CEQA document to be inadequate. Specifically, a responsible agency may initiate legal challenges to CEQA documents it believes are inadequate; if it does not do so, it is deemed to have waived any objections. It also has the option of either preparing a subsequent environmental impact report, if statutorily permissible, or assuming the role of the lead agency, if specific legal conditions are met.

Furthermore, the department frequently does not reply to official early notices—called notices of preparation—for projects that may significantly affect the environment. When a lead agency determines that a project may have a significant impact on the environment and that the department will be a responsible agency, it notifies the department that it intends to prepare an environmental impact report. State regulations require the department to provide a written reply to each notice of preparation within 30 days and to specify within its reply the scope and content of the information that the draft environmental impact report should include. However, according to the department’s project tracking database, it replied to only 14 percent of these notices in 2018.

The database includes a field for the department to record its reason for not responding to a notice of preparation; however, in many cases, we found that the department left this field blank. For the two projects we reviewed where the department did not reply to the notices of preparation, the assigned scientists stated that they did not have sufficient time to reply within the required 30 days. If the department does not either respond or request additional time within those 30 days, the lead agency has the legal right to assume that the department does not have a response to make. However, because the department has jurisdiction over the conservation, protection, and management of California’s fish and wildlife resources, its input on a project’s impacts on sensitive habitats and species is critical.

The preliminary phase of review is not the department’s last chance to provide input on projects; however, the department frequently fails to provide input during the draft phase, as well. In fact, the percentage of draft CEQA documents that the department reviewed has dropped significantly over the past five years. Although state law does not require the department to provide comments on every draft CEQA document in its role as a responsible agency, regulations state that it should comment on the adequacy of the lead agency’s draft environmental impact report or negative declaration for projects that it will later be asked to approve. However, the department seldom comments on draft CEQA documents. As Figure 4 shows, the department did not take any action at all for most of the documents it received from 2014 through 2018.

Figure 4
The Number of Draft Environmental Impact Reports and Negative Declarations the Department Reviewed Has Decreased Over the Past Five Years

A bar chart showing the number of draft CEQA documents the department has received, reviewed, and commented on for each of the past five years.

Source: Analysis of the department’s project tracking database as of January 2019.

Even when the department did review draft CEQA documents, it did not always provide comments to the lead agencies. For example, according to its database, the department reviewed 30 percent of the documents it received in 2018. However, of those 526 reviewed documents, it commented on only 144. Regulations generally allow the department 30 days to review and comment on negative declarations and 45 days to review and comment on draft environmental impact reports. After that period expires, the department may still provide comments on draft CEQA documents, but state law does not require the lead agencies to respond to those comments. Nevertheless, lead agencies must consider all comments received until a CEQA document is certified or adopted.

As a result of the department’s failure to fulfill its responsibilities in the preliminary and draft phases, lead agencies have approved some projects’ CEQA documents without any input from the department. After the draft phase, a lead agency must finalize a project’s CEQA document and decide whether to approve the project. Before it does so, state law requires the lead agency to consider draft comments from responsible agencies. Therefore, the draft phase is generally the department’s last opportunity during the CEQA process to inform the lead agency of the project’s effects on sensitive species and habitats within its jurisdiction and possible mitigation measures for these effects.

When we reviewed a selection of 20 projects for which lead agencies completed CEQA documents and for which the department was a responsible agency, we found that the department conducted varying levels of review during the preliminary and draft phases. For six of these 20 projects, early consultation did not occur and the department did not comment on draft CEQA documents. For example, in 2016 a water district approved a project that involved constructing a pump station and installing a new pipeline. The department did not have a record of early consultation and did not comment on the water district’s draft mitigated negative declaration. For another seven projects, the department provided input during only one of the phases. Finally, for the remaining seven cases, the department provided input during both the preliminary and draft phases. However, the department acted after the review period had expired in four of these seven cases. When the department does not fulfill its responsibilities, lead agencies may not be aware of potential significant impacts to fish and wildlife resources that they should consider.

The department indicates that it does not have enough resources to fulfill all of its CEQA responsibilities. In 2012 it told the Legislature that it could review only 50 percent of the documents it received with the funding and staffing levels it had at that time. According to the conservation branch chief, this is still the case. However, as Figure 4 shows, the percentage of CEQA documents the department reviewed has fallen below 50 percent over the last five years—in 2018 it reviewed only about 30 percent of the documents it received. This decrease occurred, as Figure 5 shows, even though the number of CEQA-funded positions has remained relatively stable.

Figure 5
The Department’s Number of CEQA Positions Has Remained Relatively Stable

A bar chart illustrating the fact that the department’s number of CEQA-funded staff has remained relatively consistent over the past five years.

Source: Analysis of the department’s staffing data.

The department offered several possible explanations for the decrease in the documents it reviewed. According to the conservation branch chief, the department’s number of LSA staff—some of whom also spent time reviewing CEQA documents—has decreased by 50 percent in recent years. In addition, the number of split positions, which are positions receiving funding from multiple sources, such as CEQA fees, LSA agreement fees, and CESA permit fees, has increased. He said that although these changes might have increased the number of permits the department issued, they also might have decreased the number of CEQA documents it reviewed. Further, he said that the department has received CEQA documents that involve more complicated environmental issues and that the reviews therefore take longer. Finally, some lead agencies, such as the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), contract with the department for staff dedicated to those lead agencies’ CEQA and permitting activities. However, according to the department and Caltrans, the main purpose of these reimbursed positions is to assist with the permitting process, rather than to review CEQA documents.

The department may, in fact, need additional resources to meet its responsibilities. However, as we discuss later in this report, the department has not tracked the time its staff spent on CEQA activities in a manner that would enable it to estimate the resources it would need to fully meet its CEQA responsibilities. Moreover, the department has not spent all of the CEQA fees it received on CEQA activities. The department will need to address these problems before it can adequately justify the need for additional resources.

The Department’s Failure to Comment on Draft CEQA Documents May Slow Its Permitting Process and Lead to Avoidable Harm to the Environment

When the department does not comment on draft CEQA documents, the process for applicants to obtain permits for projects may take more time. According to the department scientists we interviewed, the department’s comments can strengthen the permitting process. They further stated that when the department ensures that a lead agency knows of and can consider all known or reasonably anticipated significant environmental impacts before approving a project, it enables that lead agency to require the project applicant to implement additional measures to protect fish and wildlife. In addition, when a project applicant knows early in a project that it will need to implement costly mitigation measures, it has more time to consider ways to modify the project to reduce or avoid these costs. Furthermore, when the department comments on draft CEQA documents, it could reduce the need to request additional information from project applicants during the permitting process.

Our review suggests that when the department does not comment on draft CEQA documents, it may slow its permit processes. We reviewed a selection of 25 projects for which the department approved LSA agreements. The department did not comment on the draft CEQA documents for 18 of these projects. On average, the department took 354 days to finalize LSA agreements for these 18 projects. This is more than double the amount of time the department took—175 days—to finalize LSA agreements on the seven projects on which it did comment. According to the senior scientist overseeing the LSA program for the central regional office, the department’s comments on draft CEQA documents could ideally make the permit process easier, but in practice the lead agencies’ draft documents do not always contain enough detail for the department to comment on permit‑specific issues. However, we question this assertion, given the results of our review. Although our selection was not a statistical sample, it represents a variety of projects across four regional offices.

The department’s commenting on draft documents may speed the permitting process in part because it may reduce the need for the department to request additional information during that process, saving both the department’s and the project applicants’ time. According to the lead scientist in the LSA program for the north central region, delays during the permitting process often occur because of the time applicants take to respond to the department’s requests for additional information. Although the department cannot control how long applicants take to submit additional information, it can—by commenting on the draft CEQA document—specify needed information years before the permitting process begins. For example, the department’s reply to the notice of preparation for a solar park project asked the lead agency to include a detailed analysis of the project’s stream impacts in its CEQA document. That reply noted that the analysis would make the environmental compliance process more efficient by saving the department effort during the LSA permit process. The LSA agreement process for the solar park took just over 200 days to complete, much less than the average of about 350 days for the projects we reviewed that did not receive the department’s comments on their draft CEQA documents.

In a converse example, in 2011 the department did not comment on the draft environmental impact report for a city’s planned civic center because, according to the assigned environmental scientist, he did not have time. In 2014 the project applicant applied for an LSA agreement for the project. However, the department deemed the application incomplete and asked for additional information about the project’s stream impacts. After reviewing the additional information, the department requested yet more information about the project, and it did not issue the LSA agreement until almost two years after it received the application. Had the department commented on the project’s draft CEQA document, it could have asked the lead agency to include additional information on stream impacts, which could have reduced the amount of time the department spent requesting and reviewing additional information during the permitting process. According to the department, CEQA documents that do not address all lake and streambed impacts are a common cause for delayed LSA agreements.

A lengthy permitting application process may also contribute to the department’s inability to issue some LSA agreements. As we mention in the Introduction, state law allows a project to proceed without additional mitigations to protect fish and wildlife when the department fails to draft an LSA agreement within 60 days of receiving a complete application, through a process that the department calls operation of law. An application is complete when it sufficiently describes the project’s impacts on lake and stream habitat. If the department deems an application incomplete, the project applicant has unlimited time to submit additional information until the department deems the application complete. As Table 1 shows, the department has allowed numerous projects to proceed without LSA agreements through operation of law

Table 1
A Significant Number of Projects Have Proceeded Without LSA Agreements

  2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
Operation of law projects 269 256 297 338 396
Total applications 1,959 2,232 2,264 2,872 2,646

Source: The department’s reports generated from its project tracking database.

The amount of staff time dedicated to reviewing and returning incomplete applications may contribute to the department’s not being able to draft some LSA agreements within 60 days. According to the senior environmental scientist overseeing the LSA program in the conservation branch, staff do not always have time to issue draft agreements for projects that apply for LSA agreements. He also acknowledged that reviewing incomplete applications takes more staff time than reviewing complete applications because staff must follow up with the project applicants to obtain the missing information and must continue working with the project applicants until the applications are complete. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the time staff spend reviewing incomplete applications may divert their attention from reviewing complete applications.

When the department does not issue a draft LSA agreement, it may miss an opportunity to ensure that a project applicant has adopted adequate mitigation measures to protect fish and wildlife. For example, in 2017 the department’s central regional office allowed a solar park to proceed through operation of law. In a letter to the project applicant, the department acknowledged that the project could proceed through operation of law but stated that it still had concerns over the project’s risk of water pollution and underestimated stream impacts. Determining a project’s long-term detrimental impact on the environment can require significant analysis, but ultimately the department’s agreements can reduce the projects’ adverse impacts to fish and wildlife.

The Department Has Not Provided Guidance for Its Regional Offices, Which Could Result in Inconsistent CEQA Review

The department has established neither centralized policies and procedures nor mandatory training regarding CEQA review, increasing the risk that regions will review CEQA documents inconsistently. When the department’s regional offices receive a CEQA document, staff enter the basic details of the project into the department’s project tracking database. Next, all but one of the regions triage the documents to determine which to prioritize for review and comment. The northern region’s Redding office does not triage documents because it is able to review all of the relatively small number of documents that it receives. In some regions, scientists triage the documents, while in other regions the supervising scientists do. According to the conservation branch chief, a scientist is assigned to review the chosen CEQA documents and may make informal or formal comments to the lead agency about affected natural resources and mitigation measures necessary to protect these resources.

Neither the department nor its regional offices have policies describing how the regions should determine which documents to prioritize for review and comment. According to the conservation branch chief, the department must prioritize CEQA documents because it receives more than it has resources to handle. Because the department must select which documents to review, we expected either the state headquarters, the regions, or both would have formal guidance for staff conducting the triage to ensure the department is consistent in the kind of projects it prioritizes. However, according to the conservation branch chief, the department does not have a standardized process by which staff triage CEQA documents. Scientists in two regions stated that the department’s lack of such a process makes it difficult for newer scientists and supervisors to determine which documents they should review and on which documents they should comment. Without such standards, supervisors and scientists cannot be sure that they select for review documents that are the most important in terms of protecting the State’s fish and wildlife resources.

The department and the regional offices also lack policies for regional staff that describe how they should review CEQA documents. Regulations require that public agencies, including the department, adopt specific procedures for administering their responsibilities under CEQA, including the orderly evaluation of projects. Although the department has regulations for reviewing CEQA documents, they are general and largely mirror other state regulations. The conservation branch chief stated that the department had not developed written policies for CEQA review because there is such variation between the regions that regional managers should be able to use their knowledge and expertise to set priorities and policies specific to their regions. He also stated that creating such policies might require regulations. However, according to managers at the regional offices, the regions also do not have written policies regarding CEQA review. Without written policies at both the departmental and regional levels, the department cannot ensure that its environmental scientists are conducting CEQA reviews consistently either within or across regions.

The department has known for years that its lack of policies for prioritizing which documents to review and its lack of policies for conducting CEQA review are problematic. In fact, a 2002 Legislative Analyst’s Office’s report stated that the department lacked both a formal triage process for CEQA documents and standard protocols for guiding the extent of the department’s comments. Nonetheless, the department has not rectified this issue. However, when we presented our concerns to the conservation branch chief, he recognized that the lack of formal standards increased the risk that staff could be inconsistent in reviewing documents. He stated that he would support the department developing written procedures for CEQA triage and review, as well as requiring regional offices to create written policies on CEQA triage and review.

Because the department lacks written guidance on triaging and reviewing CEQA documents, regions may implement practices that conflict with the department’s responsibilities under law. For example, according to the environmental program manager for the southern coastal region, that region developed a practice of not reviewing any CEQA documents from a significant portion of the Los Angeles metropolitan area from 2010 through 2013. In fact, she estimated that during that time, the department provided no review on more than 450 projects. The program manager stated that the region made this decision because it lacked adequate resources for reviewing CEQA documents at the time; because the area was highly developed, the regional office assumed any additional development would have minimal impact on wildlife. However, none of the other regions have had recent policies that excluded entire areas for review, even though several also have highly urbanized areas within their jurisdictions. Additionally, the conservation branch chief stated that even in a largely urbanized area, CEQA projects might present significant environmental concerns. Without sufficient guidance from the department, its regional offices could adopt policies that effectively exempt projects from CEQA review when, according to regulations, the department should be evaluating the environmental impact of such projects.

In addition to lacking standardized policies for how its scientists should conduct their CEQA reviews, the department also offers only limited training on the subject. According to the conservation branch chief, the department’s basic CEQA training course largely focuses on the laws and concepts of CEQA and the stages of review; it does not describe how to complete a review. He further stated that no policy or legal obligation exists for staff training in CEQA and that the trainings the department offers are not mandatory. When viewed together, the department’s lack of guidance on CEQA activities and the absence of consistent, robust training for its scientists means that no common standard exists by which the department’s staff review and comment on CEQA documents, both departmentwide and within each region. The lack of a common standard for review increases the risk that staff will apply different standards when determining what environmental issues or mitigating strategies the documents ought to include. The conservation branch chief stated that he supports developing more robust training for scientists.

Finally, neither the department nor its regional offices have policies to describe how staff should enter data into the department’s project tracking database. In our review, we found inconsistencies in the quality of the data across regions. The department admits that its data are incomplete and that the regional offices are inconsistent in how they use the database. The conservation branch chief stated that the department has not created policies or procedures regarding data entry into the project tracking database because the conservation branch does not have the authority to set such policy. He stated that the department’s chief deputy director would need to establish such a policy because the regional directors report directly to that position. According to the conservation branch chief, past chief deputy directors have not established a policy for database entry. Nevertheless, this database is the only source of data the department has on its CEQA review activities, and the department uses it to report its activities to the Legislature. Therefore, it is important for the department to ensure the information it enters into the database or into any future database it adopts is accurate and consistent across regions. The current chief deputy director expressed interest in creating a statewide data entry policy.


To ensure that it consistently prioritizes and reviews projects with potentially significant impacts on the environment, the department should do the following:

To ensure regional staff enter data into the project tracking database accurately and consistently, the department should, by December 2019, develop, implement, and provide training on departmentwide written policies and procedures that outline the requirements and process for entering data related to CEQA review into the department’s project tracking database.

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The Department Has Not Used All Available Funding to Fulfill Its CEQA Requirements

Key Points

The Department Has Not Spent All of the CEQA Fee Revenue It Received Each Year on CEQA Activities

The department has not spent all of the revenue it received from CEQA filing fees on CEQA review. State law requires the department to impose and collect a filing fee to defray the costs of protecting fish and wildlife resources through CEQA. A project applicant pays the fee after the department’s review period for the draft CEQA document, upon the lead agency’s submission of the notice of determination. The department’s filing fees in 2019 are $2,350 for a negative or mitigated negative declaration and $3,270 for an environmental impact report. State law requires the department to adjust the fees each year to account for inflation and restricts the use of CEQA filing fee revenue to funding only CEQA-related activities.

However, we found that from fiscal years 2012–13 through 2016–17, the department did not use $5.7 million in filing fee revenue for its CEQA activities.3 As Figure 6 shows, we calculated that the department spent less on CEQA activities than it collected in fees in four of the five fiscal years from 2012–13 through 2016–17. The department tracks this revenue, along with revenue from other program activities, in a shared account—which the department calls the nondedicated account—within the Fish and Game Preservation Fund; however, it does not manage the CEQA revenues within the account separately from other revenue. We worked with the assistant deputy director of fiscal operations to confirm our calculations. He explained that the department does not monitor each individual revenue source and related activities within the account. Thus, the department cannot ensure that it uses restricted CEQA fee revenue only for CEQA purposes.

Figure 6
The Department Has Not Spent All of Its CEQA Revenue on CEQA-Related Activities

A bar chart showing the amount of CEQA revenue the department spent on non-CEQA programs each year between fiscal years 2012-13 and 2016-17.

Source: Analysis of the department’s yearly revenue and expenditure data.

* According to the department, its conversion to a new fiscal system means that its fiscal year 2016–17 revenues and expenditures in this figure will change after it finalizes revenue and expenditures that it posted after July 1, 2017.

In fact, other programs in the shared account have used CEQA fee revenue to supplement their own deficits. The chief of the department’s accounting branch (accounting chief) explained that when programs within the shared account spend more than they bring in, those programs use funds from others with a surplus—such as CEQA—before using the shared account’s reserve. For example, in fiscal year 2014–15, the department’s CEQA fee revenue exceeded its CEQA-related expenditures by $1.4 million, whereas the other programs using the shared account had a deficit of about $25 million. Therefore, according to the department’s accounting records, it used $1.4 million in CEQA fees to cover a portion of the deficits of other programs in the account in that year. If the department had managed CEQA’s revenue separately and not used it to cover other programs’ deficits, the department could have used these funds to better meet its CEQA responsibilities. The department noted that staff from other programs sometimes worked on CEQA activities, but the accounting records do not reflect the costs of those staff. As we describe in the next section, the department does not track staff activity in a way that would allow it demonstrate who was working on CEQA activities.

The Department Has Not Adequately Tracked the Time Its Staff Spend on CEQA Review

Because the department has not accurately tracked how much time its staff spend on CEQA activities, it cannot estimate the full cost of the program or determine how many additional resources it may need. According to the accounting chief, the scientists who review CEQA documents record their time under a single line item on their timesheets, rather than recording it per project or task. Some of these scientists may also spend part of their time working on the issuance of permits, meaning that the department cannot use their timesheets to accurately track the time they spent on CEQA review versus other activities, like permitting. Although the department’s project tracking database contains a field for the amount of time scientists spend reviewing specific CEQA documents, we observed many instances where the field was blank. Further, all four of the regions we visited stated that these data are incomplete and often do not accurately capture the actual hours staff spend on review. Because the department cannot use either timesheets or the data in its project tracking database to assess the time its scientists spend on CEQA review, it cannot accurately measure the cost of administering its CEQA responsibilities.

State law requires the department to adjust the CEQA fees annually for inflation and to estimate the cost of the program and report to the Legislature the need for any other fee adjustments every five years. The department has adjusted the fees each year for inflation; however, according to the environmental program manager for the Sacramento headquarters, the department has not recommended any additional adjustments to the Legislature in more than 10 years. The department last reported to the Legislature on the cost of conducting CEQA reviews in 2012. In that year, the department told the Legislature that the CEQA filing fees would be adequate to cover the cost of reviewing half the CEQA documents it received. However, as we discussed earlier, the department has reviewed significantly less than 50 percent of the documents that it received in recent years.

The program manager stated that the department did not report on the cost of conducting CEQA reviews to the Legislature in 2017 because of staff turnover and changes to the department’s accounting system. Nevertheless, unless the department periodically estimates the full cost of the CEQA program, it cannot recommend fees adequate to cover that cost, as state law requires. As a result, it will not be able to review all CEQA documents, as it should. Although the department is currently undergoing a budgeting analysis that will enable it to calculate the average amount of resources it uses to review a CEQA document, the analysis is not due to the Legislature until 2021.

The Department Did Not Recover Unpaid Fees It Identified in Its Audits

Although the department has identified instances when counties did not collect all CEQA fees due, it has not taken steps to recover that revenue. Once a lead agency approves a project, the project applicant pays the filing fee to the lead agency. If the lead agency is a local agency, it remits the fee to the county clerk. If the lead agency is a state agency, it remits the fees to the State Clearinghouse. State law requires that county clerks and the State Clearinghouse maintain records of all CEQA documents received and the fees for the projects and that they provide those records and the fees to the department each month. However, some of the department’s audits have found instances when counties did not collect fees for some projects when such fees were due.

The department conducts periodic audits of county clerks to determine compliance with CEQA fee collections; it has conducted 11 such audits since July 2015. At times, those audits have uncovered concerns. In a 2018 audit of San Joaquin County, for example, the department’s auditors found that the county did not collect or remit filing fees for 81 projects from July 2016 through March 2017. Fees from these projects would have totaled about $180,000. Further, another audit from the same year of Santa Barbara County found eight project applicants filed notices of determination with the county, but the county did not have proof of the applicants’ filing fee payments. If, in fact, the eight applicants did not pay, the department lost another $21,000 in fee revenue. According to the chief of the audits branch (audits chief), the former audits chief chose not to recommend that San Joaquin County recover the revenue because the department determined its conservation branch had given conflicting guidance to the counties about which projects were exempt from filing fees. He also noted that the department did not require Santa Barbara County to recover the fees because there were only a few instances of noncompliance.

Although the department conducts periodic audits, it could do more to communicate the results of those audits beyond the counties audited and to provide information on requirements for collecting and remitting CEQA fees. According to the audits chief, the department does not share its audit findings with all counties unless it observes similar issues across multiple counties. However, doing so would allow counties to learn from each others’ mistakes. The department could also use its attendance at an annual meeting of county clerks to communicate its findings. Specifically, the environmental program manager stated that until recently, the department attended an annual conference of county clerks. However, because of a staffing reduction, the department has not been able to attend the conference since 2014. Unless the department informs counties of the mistakes they might make in collecting, documenting, and remitting CEQA fees, it risks that the counties will not collect all fees due.


To ensure that it complies with state law requiring it to use CEQA fees only for CEQA activities, the department should immediately begin tracking and monitoring CEQA revenues and expenditures separately from other program activities within the nondedicated account in the Fish and Game Preservation Fund.

To determine more accurately the resources that it needs to review all CEQA documents 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.

To determine the costs for its CEQA review and set appropriate fees, the department should complete its five‑year review of program costs and revenues and report the results to the Legislature by March 2020. To provide the Legislature with a more accurate estimate of the costs of CEQA activities, the department should prepare an update to this review no more than two years after it has modified its time‑tracking procedures.

To ensure it receives all CEQA revenues to which it is entitled, the department should immediately begin collecting any unpaid fees it identifies in audits of counties.

To reduce the risk of counties not collecting and remitting CEQA filing fees, the department should begin sharing any findings from internal audits with counties and reminding county officials of their responsibilities related to CEQA fees.

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Other Areas We Reviewed

To address the audit objectives approved by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee (Audit Committee), we also reviewed the department’s practice of mailing paper CEQA documents to its regions, identified other funding sources that may be available to fund CEQA activities, and reviewed the department’s process for refunding filing fees. Table 2 describes the results of our review and presents any related recommendations that we have not already discussed in this report.

Table 2
Other Areas Reviewed as Part of This Audit

The Department’s Process for Distributing CEQA Documents

As we discuss in the Introduction, the State Clearinghouse acts as the liaison between lead agencies and the responsible agencies, such as the department. After receiving CEQA documents from lead agencies, the State Clearinghouse physically mails them to the department’s regional offices. Staff at the regional offices indicated that it has historically taken one to two weeks to receive a CEQA document from the State Clearinghouse and distribute it to the department’s environmental scientists. Because of these delays, the scientists—particularly those not working at the main regional offices—may have two weeks or less to review what can be long and complex documents. In addition to losing time waiting for mail in transit, the department has paid nearly $30,000 in postage to ship these documents over the last five years.

According to the conservation branch chief, the department has not prioritized developing a process for electronically distributing CEQA documents because scanning documents would be time‑consuming and electronic copies have not been available on the State Clearinghouse’s database. However, a new public electronic database at the State Clearinghouse should enable the electronic collection, storage, retrieval, and dissemination of most CEQA documents. State law required the State Clearinghouse to report to the Legislature on its plans for implementing the system in 2017 and to report on the status of that implementation by July 2019. According to its director, the State Clearinghouse has spent the last 18 months working with the California Department of Technology to create the new online system, which the State Clearinghouse plans to switch to in the fall of 2019. Further, the State Clearinghouse is already using some elements of the database, including online access to some CEQA documents. The conservation branch chief asserted that when the State Clearinghouse’s new database is fully operational, it will have a positive impact on the CEQA review process.


To maximize the amount of time that environmental scientists have to review CEQA documents, the department should establish procedures for the electronic distribution of CEQA documents for review by December 2019. These procedures should include the utilization of the State Clearinghouse’s electronic system when it becomes available.

Additional Funding for CEQA Reviews

The department cannot use the majority of its non‑CEQA funding for its CEQA reviews because state law restricts a significant portion of the department’s funding to specific purposes unrelated to CEQA. The department has little discretion over how it spends this revenue. For example, state law requires the department to use the oil fee proceeds from its Oil Spill Prevention and Administration Fund for, among other things, implementing oil spill prevention programs and studying prevention and response efforts. Additionally, the department receives restricted funding from sources such as federal grants and contract reimbursements. Similarly, when we analyzed the department’s Fish and Game Preservation Fund—which accounted for 18 percent of the department’s fiscal year 2018–19 budget—we found that almost all of its funding sources are restricted for other purposes. Finally, the deputy director of administration stated that the department uses the General Fund revenue it receives to fund programs that are not completely funded by fee revenues—such as law enforcement and marine life protection—and that are necessary to fulfill the department’s mission.

However, we did identify a potential source of revenue that the department could use. Specifically, state law allows the department to use proceeds from the sale of environment‑themed license plates to protect threatened and endangered species and to review projects’ environmental impacts on fish and wildlife habitat. The Department of Motor Vehicles collects the revenue and deposits it in the California Environmental License Plate Fund (environmental plate fund). Multiple state agencies draw from the environmental plate fund, including the department, the Department of Parks and Recreation, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Although the environmental plate fund’s balance has fallen in recent years, the fiscal year 2019–20 budget projects a $9 million reserve balance; thus, the department may request additional revenue from the fund should CEQA fee revenues be insufficient. According to the deputy director of administration, the department stopped using the environmental plate fund for CEQA review in 2008, after the Legislature approved a fee increase to fund CEQA review.

The Department’s Fee Refunds

The department has refunded project applicants’ filing fees in compliance with state law. State law and regulations exempt a project applicant from paying the CEQA filing fee if the department determines that the project has no effect on fish and wildlife. The department notifies the applicant or lead agency through a document called a no effect determination. According to the department’s data, it issued 950 no effect determinations from 2014 through 2018. In all other cases when the project is not exempt, state law requires a filing fee when a lead agency other than the department submits a notice of determination—with either an environmental impact report or a negative declaration—to a county clerk or the State Clearinghouse, as appropriate.

According to the conservation branch chief, the department generally issues no effect determinations before applicants need to pay the fee, but it is the lead agencies’ responsibility to inform project applicants that they should apply for a no effect determination. He also stated that the department works closely with project applicants, lead agencies, and other parties, such as project consultants, if they believe projects qualify for such determinations. The department also makes information on applying for a determination readily available, and it informs recipients of such determinations that they do not need to pay a filing fee. However, if a project applicant has already paid the fee, and the department subsequently issues a no effect determination, the department allows the applicant to request a refund. From 2013 through 2017, the department received 13 refund requests and appropriately issued a refund in each case.

We conducted this audit under the authority vested in the California State Auditor by Government Code 8543 et seq. and according to generally accepted government auditing standards. Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives specified in the Scope and Methodology section of the report. We believe that the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives.

Respectfully submitted,

California State Auditor

June 27, 2019


2 As we discuss in the Introduction, we use the term responsible agency throughout this report to refer to all of the department’s duties related to the CEQA process from early consultation through reviewing the draft documents. We specifically note those instances when the department’s duties as a trustee agency differ from its duties as a responsible agency. Go back to text

3 The department stated that because it converted to a new fiscal system, it does not yet have a full accounting of revenues and expenditures related to CEQA for fiscal year 2017–18. Go back to text

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