Government Shutdown Shakes Up The Water Sector
By Sara Jerome
The water sector is experiencing the ripple effects of the government shutdown, ranging from cancelled inspections at water utilities to interruptions in water research projects to complications in ongoing water-policymaking efforts.
The pause in normal EPA functions is the main source of repercussions for water stakeholders.
"Nearly all of the agency's 16,205 employees across the country, [including those with] oversight of water and sewage treatment plants, have powered down their computers, updated their voicemail, filled in their last timesheets, and left buildings as part of the shutdown," The Guardian reported.
Water utility inspections are on hold.
“We won’t have people inspecting wastewater treatment plants or sewage treatment plants, drinking water plants. We won’t have people out there checking the water quality,” John O’Grady, a member of a federal government worker union and EPA staffer, told CBS.
EPA officials sounded a note of alarm about the halt in water oversight.
"It stinks," O'Grady told The Guardian. "No one is going to be out inspecting water discharges, or wet lands. Nobody is going to be out inspecting waste water treatment plants, drinking water treatment plants, or landfills – nothing. None of that is going to be done. The employees are absolutely devastated."
During the government shutdown in the '90s, the halt in water oversight began to lead to some serious consequences. Officials were "forced to call off a planned inspection at a sewage treatment plant in the Chicago area," the newspaper said. And it was not a good time to cancel that inspection. "During that time the treatment plant violated its discharge limits," recalled Jonathan Schweitzer, an EPA official.
Over an extended period, that's dangerous. "In the long term if we can't review permits and pre-treatment programs, then states and municipalities will likely tend to slack off if nobody is keeping after them as far as their job is concerned protecting the waterways."
Agencies other than the EPA, who also deal with water issues, are closed, as well.
For instance, "a federal agency that keeps tabs on water levels and water quality in Wisconsin is among those closed with the government shutdown," JSOnline reported. The U.S. Geological Survey's Water Science Center "is responsible for equipment that monitors water flow and levels in rivers and streams throughout the state. Acting Director John Walker said the equipment will keep collecting data and a staff person is on call in case of flooding or another emergency."
This means water research is feeling the effects, since "the center works with universities and municipalities and stopping its data collection could affect about 100 studies on water." The report said "the collection of samples to test for water quality, [are] being halted during the shutdown.”
The shutdown is also stalling crucial water-policymaking efforts in Congress. A highly-anticipated meeting on toxic water issues in Florida had been planned for Thursday on Capitol Hill.
"The government shutdown could not come at a worse time for the toxic water situation on the Treasure Coast," WPTV reported. Toxic water has led to emergency measures banning people from the water on the Atlantic side of the state. "Bacteria levels are so high, you can't touch the water or risk an infection. Toxic algae so serious, it can cause liver damage," CBS News 12 reported.
The meeting went forward despite the shutdown, but various key participants could not attend. Activists, who travelled 20 hours to meet with officials, were "disappointed to learn that the representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would not be attending."
As of Thursday (Oct. 3), hopes for a quick reopening of the government were entirely dashed. "The government shutdown — now in its third full day — has furloughed hundreds of thousands of workers, including scores of Capitol Hill and White House aides, many of whom have turned in their work BlackBerry and are out of touch with their employers and colleagues," Politico reported. "The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 115 points — or three-quarters of a percent — Thursday morning. There is, truly, no obvious end in sight at this moment."
Image credit: "Federal Workers Protest Government Shutdown," © 2013 cool revolution, used under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/