The California Department of Fish and Wildlife “has failed to meet its obligations” to disclose potential environmental damage as required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and spent $5.7 million in fee revenue inappropriately, the state auditor reported June 27.
CEQA requires the Department of Fish and Wildlife to act as a “responsible agency” for many of projects, requiring the department to work with other public agencies to inform decision-makers and the public about the potential environmental impacts of proposed projects – and to reduce those impacts to the extent feasible.
One of the department’s key roles is to provide consultation and commentary to agencies when they 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,” the auditor stated. “Further, according to regulations, the department should … 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.”
The auditor also reported that the department has misused revenue from fees.
“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,” the auditor stated. “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.”
Additionally, 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,” the auditor said.
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,” the auditor concluded.