What is an EIR and what does it contain?

An Environmental Impact Report (EIR) is a central component of the CEQA process. The EIR is a publicly available information document that covers the bulk of a project’s environmental review.

Every EIR must include the following (CEQA Guidelines § 15120 – 15132): 

  • Project summary and description 
  • Analysis of the current environmental setting 
  • Analysis of the potential impacts 
  • Analysis of impacts of alternatives to the project 
  • Discussion of mitigations  

The EIR can be lengthy and overwhelming, and no two EIRs will be structured and formatted exactly alike. Luckily, we can focus on a few specific pieces of information to submit helpful, informed comments. Scroll down to begin.

Note: CNPS comments must have a plant nexus, so only certain sections of the EIR will be relevant to a CNPS comment letter.

Watch | Navigating the EIR


Let’s get started!

The following steps will save you time and help you home in on the most relevant information.

Step 1 - Find the EIR and verify comment periods

Start by finding the EIR document itself. An Internet search of the project title can bring up the project proponent’s or lead agency’s website, or guide you to where the EIR is posted on CEQAnet. CEQAnet is an online searchable environmental database managed by the State Clearinghouse (SCH) within the Governor’s Office of Planning & Research (OPR). The CEQAnet database contains key information about CEQA documents submitted to the SCH for state review and will link to the documents themselves.  

Be sure to check the Notice of Approval or the EIR to determine when the comment period for the EIR closes. 

To learn more about how to use CEQAnet to find projects and their supporting documents, go to the “Finding CEQA Projects” section of the toolkit, it explains how to navigate CEQAnet and how to get to the CEQA documents you need. 

The documents can sometimes be separated into volumes and contain several appendices. Do some searching and make sure you can find all of the documents that you will need for analysis. 

See Finding CEQA Projects for more information on this step.

Step 2 - Review the Table of Contents and Executive Summary

The Table of Contents is a great place to start, noting where you can find the relevant sections of the EIR. Typically, these sections would be:

  • Biological Resources
  • Comparison of Alternatives
  • Tables Relevant to Biological Resources
  • Figures or Maps of the project area and its biological resources (usually in the Appendices)
  • Biological Resources Technical Report or Biological Survey Report (usually in the Appendices)

Other relevant sections could include Greenhouse Gas Emissions (relating to climate change) and Hazards and Hazardous Materials (relating to wildfire and fire treatment).  

Next, review the Executive Summary for a basic description of the project, the environmental setting, and an overview of the potential impacts. The Introduction and Description of the Proposed Project will have more detailed information. While you likely will not need to read these sections in their entirety, you may find it useful to review sections such as the summary of scoping comments and project alternatives. 

Step 3 - Review the Biological Resources section

This section of the EIR will cover the environmental setting, impacts of the project, and mitigation measures to avoid or reduce potential impacts. The Environmental Setting section is especially important for CNPS, as it addresses the baseline conditions of the project site, including vegetation types, special-status species, and biological survey results.

We want to take a close look at the Vegetation and Habitat section to see if there are any sensitive or protected vegetation communities, and the Special-Status Plants section to see which species have the potential to occur and which were located during surveys of the project area. A description of the survey methods and timing of surveys should be included in the EIR but may be in the appendices.  

  • Check to see if the list of species with potential to occur on the project site matches a CNPS Rare Plant Inventory 9 quad search of the project area, which will include known rare plant occurrences within the USGS 7.5’ quadrangle (quad) where the project will occur as well as the quads adjacent to the project location (see Conducting Plant Searches for more information). 
  • Check to see if the timing of the surveys occurred while special-status species would have been identifiable and if reference sites were used to ensure that a certain species would be identifiable. Many annual and herbaceous perennial species may only be identifiable in years with sufficient properly timed precipitation for germination or growth.  
  • Check to see what survey guidelines were used and whether they were followed. We always recommend that the most current California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Protocols for Surveying and Evaluating Impacts to Special Status Native Plant Populations and Sensitive Natural Communities (protocols).  
  • The CDFW protocols recommend that reference sites be used, and that the survey report include a description of timing of surveys, climatic conditions, and how these may have affected the results of the surveys. 
  • Make a note of the pages that describe special-status species with the potential to occur, vegetation communities, the survey methods and survey results so that these can be cross referenced with information in the Biological Survey Report or Biological Resources Technical Report. 

Step 4 - Check the appendices

The most important part of the appendices for CNPS is the Biological Survey Report or Biological Resources Technical Report. These will include much of the same information found in the Biological Resources section of the EIR, but often with more detail and additional information, such as a list of all plant species found during surveys (the EIR typically only mentions special-status species). Check to see that all information on special-status plants in the report matches the information in the EIR. (The lead agency makes their decision based on the information in the EIR not based on the supporting information found in the Appendices.)  

  • Look for outdated scientific names where the currently accepted name may be a special-status species on the list of species with the potential to occur. 
  • Review the reasoning for a species with the potential to occur to be excluded from analysis (i.e. if the reasoning states that the species was not found during surveys, but surveys were conducted outside of the period that the species would be identifiable). 
  • Review locations of special-status plants using the map in the report, the EIR, or elsewhere in the appendices. Then, cross reference this with other data sources such as the California Natural Diversity Database (CNDDB) (login in required), the California Consortium of Herbaria (CCH2), Calflora, and iNaturalist, noting that not all locations or identifications will be accurate. The voucher or record detail should be checked to assess the source of the data and see if there are any notes regarding the accuracy of the location. 
  • Check the list of all species recorded during biological surveys for any special status species. In some cases, species that were missed in the desktop review used to prepare the list of special-status species with the potential to occur will not be included in the impact analysis even if they were identified during surveys.   

Step 5 - Scan mitigation measures

Now that we have a good idea of the habitats and species that will be impacted by the project, we can review the mitigation measures to see if they will be effective at avoiding and minimizing the impacts.  

  • Many EIRs will not clearly describe where mitigation will occur, the number of individuals to be mitigated for, how materials will be collected, salvaged, and transplanted, or offer clear requirements for maintenance and monitoring. This is called deferred mitigation. CEQA § 15126.4 (a)(1)(B) states that “Formulation of mitigation measures shall not be deferred until some future time.” but allows for the specific details of a mitigation measure to be developed after project approval if it is impractical or infeasible to include those details if the agency (1) commits itself to mitigation, (2) adopts specific performance standards, and (3) identifies potential actions to achieve performance standards. If these criteria are not met, the mitigation measure may be considered to be deferred, and may need to be amended in the Final EIR.  
  • Often the maintenance and monitoring requirements are not clearly described, or are short term, which does not ensure the ongoing success of a mitigation site. Many populations may persist while they are being managed under the terms of mitigation, but when mitigation requirements are completed, and maintenance and monitoring cease the mitigation site deteriorates and special status populations are lost. We will often recommend that sites are managed until they are presumed to be stable, then monitored in perpetuity to ensure ongoing success with a requirement that management be reimplemented if performance standards are no longer achieved. 
  • Many mitigation plans will include measures to transplant individuals. Transplanting of many species is very unlikely to be successful and proper timing of salvage, handling of salvaged material, and preparation of the recipient site is critical to improving the chances of success. Mitigation measures should include a detailed and species-specific plan for each species to be mitigated through transplantation, including performance standards, maintenance, and monitoring, in addition to salvage and transplanting procedures.  
  • Similarly, recreation of populations from seed or nursery stock is a common mitigation technique that is not often successful. Mitigation measures do not always include a requirement for the source of seed or cuttings but should require that these materials be collected from the impacted individuals on the project site, as well as performance standards, and maintenance and monitoring guidelines.  
  • Revegetation measures for disturbed areas will sometimes require that a non-invasive, or native seed mix be used, these measures should always require that a native seed mix collected from the project site, or adjacent areas, be used for revegetation. 

Step 6 - See the proposed alternatives

An EIR is required to describe a range of alternatives to the proposed project, or its location, which would avoid or substantially lessen the impacts of the project while attaining most of the basic objectives of the project.  

  • Did the project describe a reasonable range of alternatives and was there sound reasoning for not considering certain alternatives? 
  • If the project footprint could be modified to avoid impacts to a special vegetation type or special-status plant population while allowing the project to achieve most of its basic objectives, an alternative recommending this modification should be suggested.  

Step 7 - Draft your comments