Government Shutdown Puts America’s Waterways in Jeopardy

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It’s now day two of the federal government shutdown, and many city leaders and residents are still wondering what the impact will be on their communities. Certainly, the shuttering of national parks throughout the country as well as the Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo here in Washington, DC (not to mention the Panda Cam!) is grabbing a lot of headlines. But what about environmental programs that cities rely on for necessities such as clean water?

Today, Speaker Boehner announced a plan to pass three separate bills to reopen parts of the government, including the national parks (happy belated birthday, Yosemite!), but Senate Democrats and the White House quickly dismissed the proposal. Later in the day, the House passed all three bills.

Where does that leave us? Back at square one with no end in sight. The reality is that as controversial as some of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) regulatory actions may be, there are some Members of Congress that are in no rush to get Agency back up and running.

The federal government shutdown means that there is no new money for the EPA Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund (SRF) programs, which help communities obtain low-cost financing to improve the nation’s aging water infrastructure. The federal government provides grants to each state to capitalize their revolving loan funds, with the states matching 20 percent of the federal capitalization grants. States then use the funds to provide financial assistance to cities and counties to rehabilitate or build new wastewater or drinking water treatment plants, implement stormwater protection projects, and keep pollutants out of our nation’s water supply. These are just some of the types of water quality improvement projects that the SRF programs can fund.

And while 46 of the 50 states operate their own National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting programs, four states – Idaho, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and the District of Columbia rely on EPA to issue permits for a variety of water pollution discharges that, if not regulated, will negatively impact the health of our nation’s waterways. Of course, the shutdown is not a permission slip for unregulated or unpermitted discharges, but it means that projects cannot move forward.

What are the numbers?

In the behemoth buildings that comprise the EPA Headquarters Office, located across the street from NLC, only 450 of the 8,503 employees are deemed essential and are able to work during the shutdown. Additionally, each of the Agency’s 10 Regional Offices are operating with a skeleton staff ranging from 20 in Regions 9 (San Francisco) and 10 (Seattle) to 57 in Region 3 (Philadelphia).

Protecting human health and the environment cannot be accomplished with only 3.85 percent of EPA staff working during the shutdown. Congress needs to pass a clean continuing resolution to reopen the federal government and allow these vital programs to continue to operate.

Please contact your Representative today by phone, email or even twitter, and let them know that you support the passage of a clean continuing resolution for fiscal year 2014. Cities can’t afford this sideshow.

Carolyn Berndt

About the author: Carolyn Berndt is the Principal Associate for Infrastructure and Sustainability on the NLC Federal Advocacy team. She leads NLC’s advocacy, regulatory, and policy efforts on energy and environmental issues, including water infrastructure and financing, air and water quality, climate change, and energy efficiency. Follow Carolyn on Twitter at @BerndtCarolyn.