The Idaho state agency that monitors air and water quality has had to do more with less for a long time. Four years after the recession forced the state to slash funding for the Department of Environmental Quality, state support for the agency remains lower than it was back in 2003.
During the last legislative session, then-DEQ director Toni Hardesty told a key budget committee, “though our overall workforce is at its lowest level in over a decade, our workload definitely is not.”
She explained that in order to save money, the small agency was operating with 18 fewer employees than authorized. It also had cut education and outreach programs and eliminated its planning division while adding oversight of two federal programs to its list of responsibilities. The agency also decided it could temporarily go without its water monitoring program, known as BURP.
This week, Hardesty, who is now the Nature Conservancy’s Idaho director, explained to StateImpact that the agency never planned to go without BURP, its annual measure of river and stream health, for two years. She says the water monitoring program is most useful in showing trends, so if the state misses a couple years of measurements, it becomes harder to look for those trends. “It also impacts quality of data, and makes it harder to see the big picture point of view how we’re doing as a state,” Hardesty says.
The Legislature did reinstate some funding to the agency this year, including money for BURP. But deputy director Jess Byrne says the DEQ’s strategic planning and education and outreach efforts are still limited.
“The outreach and education would be the one that provided the most value, in my opinion,” says Byrne. “At the same time, we’re functioning fine without it. it’s just a little bit less of a service to the public.”
Former director Hardesty thinks the agency is doing the best it can at making sure it’s in compliance with federal mandates like the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act. Still, she says budget cuts over the years have made it more difficult for the agency to be proactive. Hardesty says things like research and monitoring cost money, and they aren’t always an immediate need. “When we’re on the cutting edge when responding to things, we can respond more effectively and proactively,” Hardesty says. “If you don’t have the funding, you’re going to be in a bit more of a reactive scenario, maybe more than you want to be.”
Idaho’s Department of Environmental Quality is funded largely by the federal government. According to it’s report to the Legislature, the federal government funded 58 percent of the DEQ last year, the state contributes 23 percent and other dedicated funds make up 19 percent.