Audit Claims California Wildlife Agency Ignored Environmental Reviews

SACRAMENTO (CN) – A state audit released Thursday found that California’s wildlife conservation agency skirted its duty of guiding new project proposals and missed out on potential opportunities to protect fish and streams.

The report found that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife reviewed less than half of the draft environmental reviews it received for development projects over the last five years and gave feedback on just 10% of drafts. The report claims the department “failed” its mission to help agencies and developers comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

“The department has not consistently responded to consultation requests or commented on draft CEQA documents, allowing lead agencies to approve projects without its input on whether those projects may affect sensitive fish and wildlife resources,” the 58-page audit states.

The law, passed by voters in 1970, requires developers and public agencies in charge of new projects to reasonably prevent and mitigate any environmental impacts.

In most cases, developers wanting to build new shopping malls or transit stations have to submit environmental reports that are eventually approved by the agency in charge of permitting the project, known as the lead agency. During the planning phase, the department is supposed to provide feedback to lead agencies and help them create applicable CEQA reporting.

California State Auditor Elaine Howle discovered several instances in which lead agencies asked the department for consultation early on in the planning process, but were ultimately ignored. She says the department’s inaction can cause “avoidable harm” to the environment and project delays.

“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,” Howle said in the audit.

The department reviewed 46% of 10,100 CEQA documents it received between 2014 and 2018, and it commented on 10% of the documents, according to the audit. 

In response to the audit, the department said that it would have to increase staffing and CEQA fees to attain a 100% response rate, but added that not every project warrants the department’s review.

“In fact, the department sometimes determines with initial review that biological resources are acceptably addressed in a given CEQA document and staff then turn their attention appropriately to CEQA documents where that is not the case,” department director Charlton Bonham said in a letter.

The audit also found that the department has been loose with CEQA fees paid by developers.

“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,” the audit states.

“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,” the audit adds.

Howle recommends that the department establish a department-wide policy that prioritizes reviewing and commenting on CEQA documents, as well as a better system to track submitted documents. She also says the department should start tracking time spent by employees on CEQA tasks to accurately predict future staffing decisions.

Department spokesperson Jordan Traverso said she agrees with most of the recommendations, but feels Howle made some “sweeping overstatements.”

“To conclude that the department is not fulfilling its obligations under CEQA is, in our opinion, an overstatement. The audit is focused on a tiny piece of the department’s efforts under CEQA,” Traverso said in an email, adding that the department has already set up a new system for tracking staff time spent on CEQA tasks.

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