The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)

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An environmental summary created by the ENVS 560/L Watershed Systems class at CSUMB.

This page provides a general overview of California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) California Public Resources Code § 21000 et seq. This act requires any development with potential impact to the environment to go through a detailed review process.


In response to the January 1, 1970 passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the California Assembly created the Assembly Select Committee on Environmental Quality to study the possibility of supplementing NEPA on a state level. In 1970, the committee issued a report entitled The Environmental Bill of Rights that called for a California counterpart to NEPA. Acting on that recommendation, the State Assembly passed CEQA in 1970. [1] The original Act was very short, taking only three pages in the Statutes of California, and did not define any terms. Interpretation of the Act fell to the courts in cases such as Environmental Defense Fund vs. Coastside County Water District and Friends of Mammoth vs. Board of Supervisors. CEQA took on its modern form with the passage of a legislative amendment in 1976 that made the standards of the Act much more explicit. [2] CEQA initially only pertained to public projects, but litigation has led to the application of CEQA on private projects.


Flowchart outlining the general CEQA process (Statute and Guidlines)

The procedures which CEQA mandates state and local agencies follow are outlined here:

A proposed project is examined to determine if it fits the characteristics of a CEQA project. If it is determined the proposed project falls under CEQA jurisdiction, the project is evaluated to see if any exemptions apply to it. If an exemption may apply, a Notice of Exemption (NOE) is filed. If the project does not receive exemptions, an initial study is performed by the Lead Agency. An initial study generally follows the CEQA Guidelines. These guidelines include a checklist which investigate the project's impact to:

  • Aesthetics
  • Agricultural Resources
  • Air Quality
  • Biological Resources
  • Cultural Resources
  • Geology and Soils
  • Greenhouse gases
  • Hazards and Hazardous Materials
  • Hydrology and Water Quality (Hydrology and Water Quality Components of Central Coast CEQA Documents)
  • Land Use and Planning
  • Mineral Resources
  • Noise
  • Population and Housing
  • Public Services
  • Recreation
  • Transportation/Traffic
  • Utilities and Service Systems
  • Mandatory Findings of Significance

The Lead Agency determines whether there are possible impacts to the environment from the project. If a project has potential significant environmental impacts, an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) is performed which identifies potential impacts and mitigation strategies to compensate. If not, the outcome is a Negative Declaration (ND). Both an EIR and ND are posted for public review through State Clearinghouse which is part of the Governor's Office of Planning and Research where CEQAnetfunctions as an online database. Both documents are subject to review and comments from agencies, organizations, and the general public. Following the review period, the Lead Agency takes all comments into consideration and may update the document. After completion and determining to continuing the project, the Lead Agency files a notice of determination (NOD).[3]


There are three types of agencies involved in carrying out CEQA projects:

  • Lead Agency
    • Public Agency primarily accountable for a projects CEQA review and project approval. Non-profits cannot be Lead Agencies. The Lead Agency serves as a liaison between project applicant, all other stakeholders, and the public.
    • A detailed list of Agencies that are lead applicants in CEQA
  • Responsible Agency
    • Any other agencies involved in a CEQA project with the lead agency are considered responsible agencies. These agencies have some approval power, but the lead agency is charged with final approval of the project.
  • Trustee Agency
    • Agency that has jurisdiction over a resource in trust for the people of California. Does not have legal responsibility over project.


The CEQA process entails the preparation of several documents. These can include:

  • Notice of Exemption (NOE)- This notice may be filed when a public agency determines that a project is exempt from CEQA and grants approval for said project. While not required, filing an NOE shortens the statute of limitations for challenging the agency decision from 180 days to 35 days. A NOE can be filed by either the lead agency or the applicant.
  • Initial Study- Once a public agency has determined that an activity qualifies as a project under CEQA and is not exempt, an initial study is prepared to determine whether the project may have a significant effect on the environment. The study also identifies possible measures to mitigate impacts to a less than significant level. Based on the outcome of the initial study, one of three documents will be prepared.
    • Negative Declaration (ND)- This is completed when the initial study finds no substantial evidence that the project will have a significant effect on the environment.
    • Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND)- A MND can be prepared when the initial study has identified potentially significant environmental effects but revisions in the project plans or proposals would avoid potential effects or mitigate them to the level of non-significance. Revisions would have to be made and agreed upon before the initial study and negative declaration are released for public review, and there can be no substantial evidence that the revised project will have significant environmental effects.
    • Environmental Impact Report (EIR)- An EIR must be prepared when an initial study shows substantial evidence that significant environmental effects may occur. The report provides information about those effects and possible actions to minimize them and outlines reasonable alternatives to the proposed project. EIR's are typically prepared by Environmental Consulting Firms (List of Environmental Consultants in the Central Coast Area)
  • Notice of Intent (NOI)- A NOI must be prepared when a lead agency intends to adopt a Negative Declaration or Mitigated Negative Declaration. The notice must be provided to the public, responsible and trustee agencies, and the County Clerk of the county or counties where the project is located.
  • Notice of Preparation (NOP)- A document stating that a draft EIR will be prepared for a specific project, and the first step in the EIR process. A NOP must be prepared by the lead agency as soon as it is determined that a project will require an EIR, and should be distributed to each responsible agency and any federal agencies involved in approving or funding the project.
  • Notice of Determination (NOD)- A notice filed by the lead agency after the ND, MND or EIR and the project have been approved. The NOD should be filed with the County Clerk where the project will be completed within five days of approval. If approval is needed from state agencies, the NOD should also be filed with the State Office of Planning and Research. [4]

Court Cases

Since its passage the courts have played an important role in interpreting CEQA. Some important cases have included:

  • Environmental Defense Fund vs. Coastside County Water District (1972)- The first court case involving CEQA. EDF charged that the water district failed to prepare an EIR before proceeding with a project to increase its water supply. The case sent the precedents that the court could issue an injunction based on a claim that an agency failed to comply with CEQA, and could consider the adequacy of an EIR.
  • Friends of Mammoth vs. Board of Supervisors (1972)- Determined that CEQA applied to both public and private projects, not just public ones.
  • No Oil Inc. vs City of Los Angeles (1974)- Introduced the precedent that if a fair argument can be made for the possibility of environmental impacts resulting from a project, an EIR is required. Previously, if an agency could provide substantial evidence that the project would likely not have environmental impacts they were not required to prepare an EIR. [2]
  • Citizens to Preserve Ojai vs. County of Ventura (1985)- Made it a fundamental requirement of CEQA that an analysis of cumulative impacts of a proposed activity, together with other past and reasonably foreseeable activities, be included as part of an environmental assessment. If cumulative impacts are not deemed significant, the document should explain the basis for that conclusion.
  • Resource Defense Fund vs. Local Formation Agency (1987)- CEQA places the burden on the approving agency to show that it has considered the identified means of lessening or avoiding a projects significant effects. Where an agency has failed to comply with CEQA, its actions may be set aside even if the agency's breach or omission would not have changed the outcome of the decision.
  • Citizens for Quality Growth vs. City of Mount Shasta (1988)- Clarified that under CEQA, governmental agencies must give "major consideration to preventing environmental damage when regulating activities affecting the quality of the environment." [5]
  • Laurel Heights Improvement Association vs. Regents of the University of California (1988)- Reinforced that a public agency must prepare an EIR whenever there is evidence supporting a fair argument that a project may have a significant effect on the environment. The decision also stated that the EIR had to be circulated for comments, and that there "must be good faith, reasoned analysis in response. Statements unsupported by factual information will not suffice. " [6]

A complete list of court cases affecting CEQA is maintained by the California Natural Resources Agency and CERES. [7]


  1. CEQA- Frequently Asked Questions [1]
  2. 2.0 2.1 A Primer on CEQA [2]
  3. CEQA Understanding the Basics SWRCB[3]
  4. CEQA- California Environmental Quality Act [4]
  5. A CEQA Primer- Purpose and Function [5]
  6. Laurel Heights Case Summary [6]
  7. Reported CEQA cases [7]



This page may contain student work completed as part of assigned coursework. It may not be accurate. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion or policy of CSUMB, its staff, or students.