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Water Quality in the Era of Small Government

While the Republican presidential candidates threaten to dissolve the Environmental Protection Agency at the federal level, struggles at the state and local levels show building blocks to such an action were stacking for years.

When asked who is primarily responsible for protecting water quality, many citizens in North Carolina respond “don’t we have a department of water quality for that?”. Those citizens are not wrong, but they are placing a large suite of issues on the shoulders of a single agency. And that agency is losing funding and staff.

Defining responsibility for water quality starts with defining the term. As anyone who has thought about water quality and habitat issues knows well, it’s not as simple as dipping a thermometer in a stream to determine water health. Aquatic ecosystems don’t run a fever when there’s something wrong; issues are far more subtle than that.

When asked to define water quality, a leader at the Division of Water Quality (DWQ) who does not want to be quoted by name, stated:

“We try to prevent pollution from affecting our streams and rivers so that we can enjoy them for recreation, we can enjoy them for drinking water purposes, the fish can survive in them … water quality is that which enables all the uses to be continued to be made of those water bodies.”

For the agency in charge of protecting water quality, traditional uses serve as indicators of the water’s health. Note the definition’s focus on pollution prevention as the means to protect these various uses.

DWQ has an environmental sciences section that maintains monitoring programs, evaluates important habitats, and predicts the impacts of potentially permitted projects, among other responsibilities. The permitting and regulatory arms of the agency are dependent on the science team to provide this crucial information. Yet, the General Assembly asks these same people to work on a shoestring budget and skeleton staff.

The most recent round of cuts slashed the operating budget of DWQ by nearly half a million dollars and eliminated 28 scientific and management positions (about 7% of total), even after efforts by managers to decrease the number of jobs lost. The feeling among the DWQ staff is now a mix of fear for future job cuts and fatigue from individuals needing to do twice as much work to make up for lost personnel.

What are the current General Assembly activities that catch the Division’s attention? “It goes from the very small, very pointed to the very large… it is all over the place”, stated an ex-director. The largest is a review of the Administrative Procedures Act that would require state environmental regulations be no more stringent than federal. Both decisions have the potential to negate decades of environmental advances made by DWQ leaders.

A previous director of the DWQ “was head of the environmental, the Sierra Club and led a lot of the environmental legislation activity [in the General Assembly] in the ‘90’s. His activism and lobbyist roots were critical to regulatory successes, ‘so that’s the high flow of policy [then]’”, recounts his successor.

Current staff of DWQ are struggling to keep that legacy alive. “We’ve provided… grant fundings, not a tremendous amount. You know, in some ways, it’s almost seed money”, describes the ex-director. With each year’s budget shrinking, the seeds are getting smaller.

Shrinking budgets and decreasing state control of water quality doesn’t have to return our rivers to sewage dumps, however. Just as in nature, birds don’t soil their own nests; individual decisions are an increasingly large piece of the puzzle. DWQ staff concluded “so it goes all the way down to citizen responsibility … how much we fertilize on our lawns has an impact in the aggregate, you know”.

Recent successes have relied heavily on citizen engagement and support. When asked about critical factors in project successes, DWQ staff replied “it has to start with a committed community involvement”. Future successes may also have to rely on citizen wallets.

Budget and staff cuts may shake up the structure of the Department of Water Quality, but it does not necessarily spell the demise of clean water in the state’s renowned rivers and coasts.  True to the age-old Republican platform of small government and individual responsibility, water quality is now in the hands of the citizenry.

In fact, as one staff member pointed out, this responsibility has always been in the hands of the citizenry and it took major budget cuts to make the need apparent:

“I think a lot of things are misdirected in terms of how they think a fix is going to happen because ‘it’s not me, it’s my neighbor that’s causing the problem’. And that’s something we have to learn to overcome because we’re all part of the problem as well as part of the solution.

The next few years will hold citizens responsible for water quality as state financial and technical support withers. These years should be viewed as an opportunity for self-reflection of what it means to be a citizen of North Carolina. It will also be an opportunity to take responsibility for your share of the state’s pollution.