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Washington State Environmental Review Overview (9-WA-a)

Information current as of 2020
In Washington, state agencies may need to conduct an environmental review for project actions, as required by the Washington State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). SEPA requires all governmental agencies to consider the environmental impacts of a proposal before making decisions. Washington uses an Environmental Checklist and Environmental Review (ER) to provide information to help government agencies identify impacts from their proposals and determine whether an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is necessary.

State Environmental Review Overview Process

9-WA-a.1 - Hold Pre-Application Conference

The state of Washington recommends that the developer meet with the project’s lead agency to discuss the project proposal prior to submitting a permit application or environmental checklist. For more information regarding how the lead agency is determined, see 9-WA-a.7 below. At the conference, the developer and agency may discuss existing regulations that would affect the proposal, the steps and possible timeline for project review, and other information that may help the developer submit a complete application. SEPA Online Handbook § 2.1.

9-WA-a.2 – Project Proposal

The developer must submit a project proposal or permit application to the relevant agency. Proposals include public projects or proposals by agencies and proposals by developers. The developer’s proposal may be put forward as an objective, as several alternative means of accomplishing a goal, or as a particular or preferred course of action. Wash. Admin. Code § 197-11-060. Proposals or parts of proposals that are related to each other closely enough may be treated in the same environmental documents.

9-WA-a.3 to 9-WA-a.4 – Is SEPA Review Required?

SEPA environmental review is required for any state or local agency decision that meets the definition of an “action” and is not categorically exempt. Actions are divided into two categories, “project actions” and “nonproject actions.”

Project Actions include agency decisions to:

  • License, fund, or undertake a specific project.
  • Purchase, sell, lease, transfer, or exchange natural resources, including publicly owned land, whether or not the environment is directly modified.

Nonproject Actions involve decisions on policies, plans, or programs and include:

  • The adoption or amendment of legislation, ordinances, rules, or regulations;
  • The adoption or amendment of comprehensive land use plans or zoning ordinances; and
  • The adoption of any policy, plan, or program that will govern the development of a series of connected actions, excluding those for which approval must be obtained from a federal agency prior to implementation.

Wash. Admin. Code § 197-11-704.

To determine if SEPA review is required the developer should accurately define the proposal. Defining the proposal involves identifying all related and interdependent pieces of the proposal, including all permits that the project will require. Wash. Admin. Code § 197-11-060.

9-WA-a.5 to 9-WA-a.6 - Is the Project Covered by a Categorical Exemption?

SEPA contains a list of actions that are statutorily exempt from SEPA review. RCW 43.21C.010 et seq.. However, if some aspect of the proposal is exempt while other actions are not exempt, the developer will be required to comply with the full SEPA review. Wash. Admin. Code § 197-11-305.

Examples of specific actions that are exempted from SEPA review include:

9-WA-a.7 – Determine Lead Agency

The “lead agency” is the agency with the main responsibility for complying with SEPA’s procedural requirements. The first agency receiving an application for or initiating a non-exempt proposal must determine the lead agency for that proposal. WAC 197-11-924. The lead agency is determined using the criteria outlined in Wash. Admin. Code § 197-11-926 - 197-11-944. Once the lead agency is determined, the initial agency must notify them of the proposal and forward all associated documents. Wash. Admin. Code § 197-11-924.

The following rules apply for determining the Lead Agency:

  • Lead agency for governmental proposals: When an agency initiates a proposal, it is the lead agency for that proposal. If two or more agencies share in the proposal, the agencies must determine by agreement which of them is to be the lead agency. Whenever possible, agency staff carrying out SEPA procedures should be different from agency staff making the proposal. Wash. Admin. Code § 197-11-926.
  • Lead agency for public and private proposals: When the proposal involves both private and public activities, it must be characterized as either a private or a public project for the purposes of lead agency designation, depending on whether the primary sponsor or initiator of the project is an agency or from the private sector. If agency and private interests are too intertwined to make this characterization, then the project must be considered a public project. Wash. Admin. Code § 197-11-928.
  • For proposed private projects for which there is only one agency with jurisdiction, the lead agency must be the agency with jurisdiction. Wash. Admin. Code § 197-11-930.
  • For proposals for private projects that require nonexempt licenses from more than one agency, when at least one of the agencies requiring such a license is a county/city, the lead agency must be the county/city where the greatest portion of the proposed project area is located, as measured in square feet. Wash. Admin. Code § 197-11-932.
  • When a proposed private project requires nonexempt licenses only from a local agency other than a county/city and one or more state agencies, the lead agency must be the local agency. Wash. Admin. Code § 197-11-934.

Notwithstanding the lead agency designation criteria above, the lead agency for proposals within the areas listed below must be as follows:

  • For all governmental actions relating to energy facilities requiring certification R.C.W. 80-50 the lead agency must be the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC);
    • This does not apply to hydropower projects;
  • For all private projects requiring a license or lease to use or affect state lands, the lead agency must be the state agency managing the lands in question.

Wash. Admin. Code § 197-11-938.


For most geothermal proposals, the lead agency will be the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.


For most hydropower project proposals, the lead agency will be the first agency to issue a permit for the proposed project. This is often the city or county within whose jurisdiction the project is located or a local agency Wash. Admin. Code § 197-11-932- § 197-11-934.

9-WA-a.8 to 9-WA-a.10 - Is the Project Covered by an Existing State Environmental Document?

The developer may be permitted to use another environmental document to cover the proposed project. See Wash. Admin. Code § 197-11-965. An agency may use environmental documents that have previously been prepared in order to evaluate proposed actions, alternatives, or environmental impacts. The proposals may be the same as, or different than, those analyzed in the existing documents. Wash. Admin. Code § 197-11-600.

Any agency acting on the same proposal must use an environmental document unchanged, except in the following cases:

  • For a Determination of Non-Significance (DNS) if an agency with jurisdiction is dissatisfied with the DNS, in which case it may assume lead agency status;
  • For DNSs and Environmental Impact Statements (EIS), preparation of a new threshold determination or supplemental EIS is required if there are substantial changes to a proposal resulting in likely significant adverse environmental impacts or new information indicating a proposal’s probable significant adverse environmental impacts;
  • For EISs, if the agency concludes that its written comments on the DEIS warrant additional discussion for purposes of its action other than that found in the lead agency’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS).

Wash. Admin. Code § 197-11-600.

Existing documents may be used for a proposal by employing one or more of the following methods:

  • “Adoption,” where an agency may use all or part of an existing environmental document to meet its responsibilities under SEPA. (Note: Agencies acting on the same proposal for which an environmental document was prepared are not required to adopt the document); or
  • “Incorporation by reference,” where an agency preparing an environmental document includes all or part of an existing document by reference.

Wash. Admin. Code § 197-11-600.

However, in adopting an exiting environmental document, the agency must follow the procedures outlined in Wash. Admin. Code § 197-11-630.

9-WA-a.11 to 9-WA-a.12 – Is the Project Covered by a NEPA Document?

Some projects may require the developer to comply with both NEPA and SEPA requirements. In these situations the state of Washington allows the developer to adopt NEPA documents as a substitute for SEPA procedures.

An agency may adopt any environmental analysis prepared under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by following the procedures outlined in Wash. Admin. Code § 197-11-600, 197-11-630. A NEPA environmental assessment may be adopted to satisfy requirements for a DNS or EIS, and an agency may adopt a NEPA EIS as a substitute for preparing a SEPA EIS if:

9-WA-a.13 to 9-WA-a.14 – Is NEPA Review Required?

If NEPA and SEPA review have yet to be conducted, the lead agency and federal agencies may agree to concurrent environmental review, which would satisfy all requirements.

9-WA-a.15 – Initiate Environmental Assessment Process

If the project is not covered by another environmental document and SEPA review is required, then the developer must initiate the State Environmental Assessment process:

State Environmental Assessment:

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Contact Information

Edit Washington State Department of Ecology
State Environmental Issues Contact 360.407.6004