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Massive Cuts Loom as Sequestration Deadline Nears

sequesterWith the "sequestration" scheduled to take effect on Friday, massive cuts to the Federal budget loom. So far, the Obama administration and Republicans on Capitol Hill have failed to reach an agreement. Some Capitol Hill watchers argue that no real negotiations are taking place (or even civil dialogue). Obama administration officials have started a recent full-out push to highlight the negative impact of cuts on government services, with a different cabinet official making a statement each day. But Republicans have stood firm against Obama's efforts to raise taxes to cover the cuts. Until we hear more, some $85 billion is expected to be cut from the 2013 budget, with $1 trillion more taking effect over the next decade. While few deny that the federal deficit and accumulated debt are becoming real problems, the scale and timing cuts have many worried that reductions in government spending could slow economic growth.

Thousands of federal employees in all agencies are expected to receive pay cuts and be furloughed. Beyond reduced staff time, here's a blow-by-blow account of how cuts will impact programs landscape architects and other sustainable design professionals care about:

Environmental Protection

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would lose $716 million in financing this year. In a recent letter by Administrator Lisa Jackson to the senate, Jackson writes sequestration would limit the agency's ability to monitor clean air and water, enforce rules currently in place, and help states enforce rules, too. E&E News says, "cuts to air and water programs would be especially tough because much of that money is distributed to states, many of which have already seen their budgets significantly reduced in recent years. Grant programs to the states to finance aging water infrastructure and implement Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act programs are among the largest pots of money in EPA's budget."

On water alone, Lisa Jackson writes, "reductions under sequestration would impact state's ability to meet drinking water public health standards and to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous pollution that contaminate drinking water supplies, cause toxic algae blooms, and deprive waters of the oxygen fish need to survive." In practice, this would mean eliminating 100 water quality protection and restoration projects.

More than $100 million would also be cut from the brownfield clean-up Superfund program.

Green Infrastructure

Research and technical assistance to states on critical areas like green infrastructure would be curtailed. "Under sequestration, reductions to green infrastructure (GI) research would slow the agency's ability to provide GI best practices to municipalities dealing with costly stormwater managment enforcement actions. Other benefits of GI, such as wildlife habitat, flood and erosion control, recreational opportunities, jobs and increased property values, would also be lost."

Sustainable and Healthy Communities

The EPA's great work on sustainable and healthy communities, a priority of administrator Jackson, would be more limited. The EPA's partners in sustainable community development, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Department of Transportation, would be hamstrung.

Fellowship programs would be eliminated, while two joint EPA / National Institute of Health programs on environmental health and children would go. Research grants to help academic institutions understand the impact of the environment on health would also be reduced.

The EPA would also take big hits in terms of its climate change research programs and adaptation programs on the ground.


The National Park Service (NPS) will be hard hit, with each federally-managed park taking a 5 percent budget cut, for a total of a $110 million cut overall. According to The New York Times, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently said the NPS won't actually close any parks, monuments, or refuges, but "hours for visitors centers, tours and interpretive programs, like those at the Gettysburg battlefield, would be curtailed." In addition, access to some "back country trails and camp grounds could be limited if firefighting and rescue teams are cut back."

Jonathan B. Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, said national parks bring in around 280 million annual visits, contributing huge amounts to the local economies near parks. "National parks generate $30 billion in economic activity and support 252,000 jobs," so the economic impact could be much broader.

According to Salazar, the timing of the cuts are particularly "grim," since "they hit as parks are preparing for an influx of spring and summer visitors," wrote Federal News Radio.


According to E&E News, the Fish and Wildlife Service faces similar challenges at its 100 wildlife refuges. Desiree Sorenson-Groves, vice president of government affairs for the National Wildlife Refuge Association, said that environmental education, already a secondary priority at many refuges, may get pushed further down the list. In addition, due to staff time reductions, FWS may not have staff to "oversee the refuges' 42,000 volunteers, a significant portion of the agency's labor force that helps conduct wildlife surveys, band birds, raise fish and guide tours, among other tasks."

Separately, USDA cuts would have impact on conservation. They would limit "technical and financial assistance" provided to farmers for conservation. "The department also plans to put in place a hiring freeze in the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which administers conservation programs."


Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been out front in the media over the past few days, calling the alarm about the possible negative effects of the cuts on air traffic control. Transportation would lose nearly $1 billion in financing, or 1.4 percent of its total budget, with a huge chunk coming out of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Beyond this, funds for the popular TIGER grant program would be cut by $41 million. The "New Starts" program, which finances new transit construction, would take a $156 million hit, while MAP-21 discretionary (non-highway) programs would be reduced by 7 percent.

Image credit: Slate