Audit faults agency implementation of environmental law
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has failed to meet its responsibilities under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). This is the overall finding from the State Auditor’s report released June 27.
The audit found fault with how the department reviews CEQA documents, including environmental impact reports. The report stated that the CDFW was not accurately accounting for the use of environmental filing fees.
During 2018, CDFW responded to about 20% of the requests for consultation from lead agencies. The department responded that it did not have sufficient staff resources to respond to all CEQA documents.
However, CDFW has no policies or procedures for setting priorities to determine which requests will be answered, according to the audit report. Further, late responses or no responses result in more time needed during later steps such as permit review applications.
The auditor recommended that CDFW develop and implement a policy for determining how it will review and provide comments on CEQA documents by March 2020.
CEQA, which was enacted in 1970, “requires state agencies to give major consideration to preventing environmental damage when regulating activities under their jurisdiction. Both public and private development projects — such as community centers and apartment building — are generally subject to CEQA.
Complying with CEQA allows state and local government agencies to inform decision makers and the public about the potential environmental impacts of proposed projects and to reduce those environmental impacts to the extent feasible.
When the CDFW does not reply, the lead agencies may not be aware of an environmental issue that should be included in their CEQA documentation. This issue may then become controversial during a later stage, such as a permit approval.
If aware of the issue, the research and studies might be completed sooner.
The report authors found that CDFW was not only derelict responding to preliminary stage requests, but its response to draft documents has “dropped significantly over the past five years.”
CDFW’s response to the audit finding agreed with the audit acknowledging that it does not have sufficient staff to respond to all requests. Consequently, CDFW is balancing the need for staff with the establishment of reasonable and appropriate fees.
The audit report also found that CDFW was using CEQA fees to supplement non-CEQA work in recent years. To correct this problem, the state auditor recommended several changes to the CDFW financial system. CDFW agreed with these recommendations and will improve its financial reporting systems.
Besides the lack of specific policies for determining the priority for responding to a CEQA request, the auditors also noted that CDFW provides insufficient training to staff on how to review documentation. Consequently, consistency across the state is inadequate.
While Charlton Bonham, director of CDFW, generally agreed with the audit results and agreed to embrace the recommendations, he did say in his June 7 letter, “…we would be remiss if we failed to acknowledge that some of the language in the report is unduly provocative and without critical context.”
The state auditor replied, “We stand by the language we use to describe the department’s challenges related to CEQA. Our report provides appropriate context and sufficient evidence to support our report’s headings and conclusions.”