State Auditor Finds That California Department of Fish & Widlife Failed to Comply With its Obligations Under CEQA

June 2019

On June 27, 2019, the State Auditor affirmed that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (“DFW”) “is not fulfilling its responsibilities under the California Environmental Quality Act [(“CEQA”)].” In response to a Joint Legislative Audit Committee request, the State Auditor performed an audit of DFW and found: (1) that DFW failed to fulfill its obligations as a CEQA Responsible Agency; and (2) that DFW improperly spent $5.7 million in CEQA filing fee revenues to subsidize non-CEQA programs.

DFW’s key CEQA function is to provide consultation and comments to lead agencies during the CEQA review process concerning potential impacts to state biological resources. State auditors found, however, that DFW increasingly failed to perform its CEQA function over the past four years. In 2018, for example, DFW received 1,768 Draft EIRs and Negative Declarations, but reviewed only 30 percent of those documents and commented on only eight percent. As a result, many environmental documents did not include critical information necessary to adequately inform lead agencies and the public regarding potential biological impacts. Moreover, follow-on permitting efforts required more than twice as much time in the absence of this critical information. As the State Auditor said, “there is no adequate substitute for the [D]epartment’s input on a project’s impacts on sensitive habitat and species.”

State auditors also found that DFW had misapplied nearly $6 million in CEQA funding. Unlike other state agencies, DFW is statutorily authorized to collect fees to participate in the CEQA review process. State auditors found that lax accounting practices within DFW resulted in use of CEQA funds to cover other DFW budget shortfalls. State auditors determined that DFW’s failure to implement proper time-keeping measures exacerbated the problem by preventing DFW from accurately projecting its fiscal requirements to complete CEQA reviews.

The Audit concluded with several recommendations to ensure that DFW meets its critical statutory obligations under CEQA in the future. More important, however, the Audit reiterates the significance of early and active participation in the CEQA process by all stakeholders, including critical state agencies like DFW.

A copy of the audit can be found here.

A copy of this article can be downloaded here.

David Temblador is a Partner at Harrison, Temblador, Hungerford & Guernsey LLP in Sacramento, California.

© 2019 – Harrison, Temblador, Hungerford & Guernsey LLP. All rights reserved. The information in this article has been prepared by Harrison, Temblador, Hungerford & Guernsey LLP for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.