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Sequester likely freezes effort to control hydrilla / March 04, 2013
While the country awaits the impact of the sequester — shorthand for $85 billion in federal budget cuts that are slated to unfold over the next seven months — one agency with a large footprint in southern Virginia is preparing to scale back its operations, on water and on land.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees Buggs Island Lake, is expecting to downgrade non-critical operations as the agency deals with employee furloughs, a contracting freeze and other effects of the across-the-board budget cuts, which kicked in Friday after Congress and President Obama were unable to resolve a standoff dating back two years.

One immediate impact of the sequester is the likely termination of a program planned this summer to control the spread of hydrilla on Buggs Island Lake. The Corps has been planning an assault on the noxious weed, blamed for clogging up closed-in portions of the lake, using herbicides and sterile grass carp, which would be introduced for the first time.

Michael Womack, Operations Project Manager for the Wilmington District, which includes Kerr Reservoir/Buggs Island Lake, said the project is likely to fall by the wayside despite reaching the end stages of the planning process,.

“We would complete the environmental assessment and the public comment portions of the Corps campaign to control hydrilla,” said Womack. “However, the treatment options are not currently approved or funded.” These options include the introduction of grass carp into the lake, application of chemical controls, and re-introduction of native grasses to the lake and shore line.

Without prior approval, the hydrilla campaign is not likely to survive sequestration, he acknowledged. Womack said the Corps would view Kerr Reservoir’s hydrilla infestation as a minor problem compared to the rest of the Southeast. Therefore, it is not a “mission critical” program, he said.

Other programs likely to be put on hold, according to Womack, include installation of new boat docks at Corps sites around the lake, and improvements to the ramps or parking sites at boat launch areas, such as Buffalo Park. “Campsite users may even see fewer park rangers,” Womack said.

He added, “We have prepared for the worst, hoping for the best. Of course, we will maintain the safety of our infrastructure [the dam and the lake]. Continue to support mission essential items [operation of the hydro power plant] and ensure the safety of the public. Less critical work will probably be put on hold as we focus on those critical functions.”

On Friday, President Obama implemented the sequestration cuts, which total $85 billion in the next seven months and $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

The cuts were initially mandated by Congress in 2011 during the debt-ceiling negotiations, but were delayed until March 1, 2013. They primarily affect discretionary spending. Programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and food stamps are largely protected.

While it is still too early to know the full impact of sequestration on Corps of Engineers’ operations, Ann Johnson, Chief of Public Affairs for the Corps, said the agency anticipates “roughly a 5 percent cut to the budgets for all civil works programs, projects and activities, amounting to about a $250 million cut (USACE-wide).”

She further expects there to be a continuation of the current hiring freeze for all civilian employees and work furloughs for existing civilian employees.

These cuts are lower than White House projections, which estimated that funding for non-defense programs would be cut by 9 percent, while defense programs would be cut by 13 percent, for the seven months remaining in fiscal year 2013.

Johnson said the Department of Defense and the Corps already “provided notification to Congress of the intent to furlough [its employees] which must take place 45 days prior to any furloughs. All of our employees have received the letter the Secretary of Defense sent out to all DoD employees. Currently the Wilmington District, the office which oversees Kerr Dam, Kerr Lake and the Roanoke River Basin system has 447 civilian employees, 64 are in Virginia and the balance are in Wilmington or other locations throughout North Carolina.

“If sequestration is triggered,” added Johnson, most Corps civilian employees will be furloughed “for an average of one day per week for up to 22 weeks beginning April 25, 2013. This equates to a 20 percent cut in pay, which will negatively affect morale. Our senior leadership in the USACE and our Wilmington District Commander are deeply concerned about the negative effects of furloughs on the morale and effectiveness of our civilian workforce.”

It is expected that the combination of furloughs and hiring freezes will also mean reduced hours for many of corps-operated parks and campsites, and fewer summer programs.

One bright spot, according to Womack, is that the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is responsible for stocking the lake with fish. Therefore, sequestration may have little or no effect on that particular program, which means amateur and competition anglers can continue to fish the lake without consequence.

Again, Johnson emphasized, “we will not know to what degree we will be cut until we get an actual FY13 Energy and Water appropriation,” or they get direction from the White House Budget Office, which, according to Controller Danny Werfel, has the authority to tell agencies how to apportion their reduced budgets.

Aside from the Corps, other federal programs likely to feel the effects of sequestration are monitoring for hurricanes and weather emergencies, disaster response, education programs such as Head Start and Meals on Wheels for seniors.

There is a chance that sequestration could end by March 27. That is the day funding for the government expires. To prevent a government shutdown on March 28, lawmakers must pass another funding bill, if not for the rest of the year, then at least for a few weeks or months.

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