Earth Matters: Underfunded programs quickly becoming an epidemic

The funding crisis for environmental programs — locally, statewide and nationally — would seem to have reached a new and alarming level.

This problem didn’t arise overnight. It’s been the culmination of several decades of funding postponements and robberies of Peter to pay Paul. In an attempt to balance budgets and cut costs, higher levels of government have shoveled those expenses onto the shoulders of the government bodies a step or two below them.

It’s trickle-down economics at its worst. For local governments, at the bottom of the hill, the trickles turn into a flood of unfunded mandates.

Pennsylvanians want safe drinking water, state parks near their homes, affordable recycling programs, energy extraction without water pollution and storm water management that prevents floods. But we can’t seem to find the money to pay for them.

Beyond the local struggles to pay for recycling and storm water efforts, a number of other programs have been underfunded for more than a decade. The state’s independent environmental Citizens’ Advisory Council (CAC) recently admonished the Pennsylvania General Assembly for the massive cuts to the Department of Environmental Protection’s budget over the last 14 years. The 2017-18 DEP budget is $93 million less than the 2002-03 DEP budget, a whopping 60 percent reduction.

The CAC, in a letter to the legislature, explained that DEP “has diligently done more with less funding, less staff and less resources while fixed costs have continued to rise…”

From a national perspective, Americans want clean rivers and beaches, sustainable fisheries, safe workplaces, healthy air, food free of toxins and pathogens and an extensive system of National Parks.

A maintenance backlog of $12.5 billion in the National Park Service has presented a great challenge, but a hiring freeze to the already understaffed Park Service will be even more problematic. Beyond these challenges, budget cuts to the Department of the Interior threaten to make matters even worse.

To help pay for a $54 billion increase to the Department of Defense’s budget, early budget drafts have also proposed massive cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Oceanic and Atmos­pheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of Energy (DOE).

Interior may see an 11 percent (or $1.4 billion) cut and EPA is slated to see their budget cut by 25 percent, from $8.2 to $6.1 billion. Climate protection funding is projected to be cut by 70 percent and the environmental justice program by nearly 80 percent.

Despite widespread bipartisan support, the Great Lakes Restoration initiative may lose 97 percent of its present funding. NOAA, that oversees not only oceanic science but the National Weather Service and a number of climatic research and data management initiatives, is to be cut by 17 percent.

Despite public opinion data from Yale University showing overwhelming concern about global warming and support for alternative energy (70 percent and 80 percent respectively), it has been proposed that the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renew­able Energy and the Office of Fossil Energy (which focuses on technologies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions) be completely eliminated.

These programs are widely supported and many are also required by law. No matter which side of the funding debates you find yourself, it’s clearly important to stay informed and then let your elected officials know your future vision for this valuable work.

John Frederick (jfrederick@ writes on environmental issues biweekly in the Mirror.