EPA Water Oversight Resumes; Shutdown Fallout Includes Restart Costs, Interruptions To Water Research
By Sara Jerome
What did 16 days without the federal government mean for the water sector? Between restart costs, the EPA furlough, and the sudden vanishing of certain key websites, many water stakeholders noted a toll.
The American Water Works Association said the states, in particular, "felt the pain" of the impasse. "Many state environmental programs rely – to varying degrees – on federal grants to run their programs. Some states had begun to furlough employees themselves. Some states in fact operate large portions, and some cases all, of their drinking water programs with funds from Public Water System Supervision grants and portions of the state revolving loan fund programs," AWWA said in a statement.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy hugs a staffer as the EPA gets back to work.
It assessed the impact as negligible in other areas, particularly when it comes to policy issues. "Water regulations in development will not likely miss their projected deadlines because rule development is already a slow, methodical process," the group said.
Despite the vast EPA furlough, some water workers did not blink, reporting for duty on a volunteer basis. "On Oct. 8, 15 staffers from the [EPA's] Atlanta office headed down to a trash-filled urban stream that a local business owner had complained about, and cleaned it up," The Christian Science Monitor reported.
"As we planned the cleanup, we had to exchange cell phone numbers because we usually use our work email and phones to communicate in the office—and, well, all of that was going to be shut down, too," Lisa Gordon, biologist in the group, said.
Certain water-related functions of the EPA remained funded because of their critical nature.
Scott Slesinger, legislative director at the National Resources Defense Council and a former EPA employee, said in Mother Jones: "The only sites that would be exempted would be those that, if they stopped working tomorrow, contaminants will immediately get into the drinking water."
How did the shutdown affect groundwater? A lively debate broke out on LinkedIn.
Becky S., the environmental services group manager at Stanley Consultants, commented: "USGS website being down is a big deal! Other government websites are down. EPA website is up but not being maintained."
Drew C., a geologist, said: "Impacts to groundwater as a resource may be negligible over the short term. Impacts to the groundwater business will vary, depending on their relationship to the federal government and its partners. Companies are putting hiring actions on hold, extending unemployment. Submittals will be backlogged, delaying invoice processing. The restart costs, as shown by the 1995-96 shutdown, will not be trivial."
The New York Times noted that the effects on government-funded environmental research extended all the way to Antarctica.
"The shutdown in Washington is being felt acutely at the ends of the earth. Some 3,000 Americans work through the Antarctic summer, including scientists and support staff from the private sector and from federal agencies like the Defense and Energy Departments, NASA and the United States Geological Survey. Amid the battle over the country’s spending and debt limit, the National Science Foundation, which coordinates the Antarctic program, was ordered into 'caretaker status,' which means skeleton staffing," the report said.
Cities such as Hermeston, OR that needed government approval for water projects were forced to wait patiently until the shutdown ended. The city needs a waiver from the EPA to allow its new wastewater treatment plant to carry out all its functions.
"City manager Ed Brookshier told the city council at their Oct. 14 meeting that the federal agency was 'literally a day away” from making a decision when Congress failed to reach an agreement to prevent the government shutdown," The East Oregonian reported.
EPA workers are back on the job, meaning water quality inspections will resume. Zakiya Davis, an EPA water quality inspector, praised the news.
"I am very glad that the work is going to get done. We're going to help save the environment, save some lives, as well as get paid," she said in NBCDFW.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy was also happy to get back to work. She tweeted: "So glad to have the great @EPA staff back on the job. The country has certainly missed them. I know I have." She also noted that Vice President Biden, armed with muffins, helped welcome staffers back to the agency.
Image Credit: Photo tweeted by @EPAGina.