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Policy News –June 8, 2005
Congress seeks to privatize some USGS water activities
More of the data collection and analysis work conducted through the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) cooperative water program could be privatized under language in the U.S. House of Representative’s Department of the Interior fiscal year 2006 appropriations bill. Supporters of the privatization language say that it would stop USGS from competing with the private sector, but many environmental managers fear that important data collection efforts would be weakened.
State and local officials currently can choose either USGS or a private contractor to conduct hydrologic studies. These officials say that eliminating the USGS option could be detrimental to their long-term water management efforts because they rely on the “consistent, unbiased, and credible” data that USGS provides through programs such as the national stream gage network.
USGS now works with approximately 1400 state and local partners through its cooperative water program, following guidelines that already are supposed to steer the agency away from competing with the private sector. Generally, these projects, which are funded on a cost-share basis, must provide benefits to entire regions or the nation, not just local partners. These projects include the study of major knowledge gaps in an area’s hydrogeology or the exploration of state-of-the art science, explains Cynthia Barton, director of the USGS’s Washington Water Science Center in Tacoma. Projects that fall into the latter category, for example, have helped to enhance removal of pharmaceuticals and organic wastewater contaminants from municipal wastewater, develop bioremediation protocols, and provide new methods and models for real-time pathogen detection, according to Glenn Patterson, coordinator of the cooperative water program.
Standard methods are used to collect all data, which therefore are directly comparable at the local, regional, and national levels, Barton notes. Moreover, the data are peer reviewed and publicly available (http://water.usgs.gov/nwis).
USGS “has an outstanding reputation for objectivity,” says John Morris, director of the water resources division of North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources. “Our department does a lot of work with private consultants, but for some types of work, we believe USGS is the best provider.”
Terry Rolan, director of water management for the city of Durham, N.C., agrees. In developing a long-term program to monitor the quality of regional water supplies, the city rejected private contractors. “We didn’t want to spend the kind of money we were spending and have anybody question the data,” he says.
However, in a report accompanying the funding bill, the House of Representatives’ appropriations committee states that it “is concerned with reports that suggest that the [USGS] water resources division . . . is providing or seeking to provide a variety of commercial services to federal and nonfederal entities in direct competition with the private sector.” Further, the committee “strongly discourages” the agency from doing any work that could be done by the private sector unless USGS contracts the work out to private companies.
If this policy takes effect, a substantial portion of the water data collection and studies that USGS conducts could be privatized because many of the specific capabilities needed to carry out program projects are commercially available, says Robert Hirsch, USGS’s associate director for water. “That would probably result in cutting our professional staff of hydrologists and technicians by about 50%,” he adds.
But some representatives of private-sector engineering firms say that USGS cost-share projects amount to unfair competition. “Typically, it’s for work that’s readily available in the private sector, and we’d argue that the private sector is better able to provide [it],” says Camille Fleenor, director of federal procurement policy for the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC). Resolving the government competition issue is a top legislative priority for ACEC, and “we just hope USGS backs off and starts concentrating on its original mission of serving as a database for hydrologic data, theory, and research,” just as the report language calls on it to do, Fleenor says.
Barton cautions, however, that such a move could undermine the massive database that USGS has built during the past 100 years. Private contractors will not be required to put data into publicly accessible databases, no one will ensure the quality of their data, and the protocols and methodologies used could differ nationwide, she warns.
“Having a standard approach to these types of things is critical,” agrees Jeff Myers, director of the Bureau of Water Assessment and Management for New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation. He points out that the U.S. EPA and other agencies face difficulties when they try to generate national report cards on environmental quality based on data collected by states that vary in their approaches.
The Senate is scheduled to take up the appropriations bill in June.
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