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Great Lakes at risk during partial federal government shutdown

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
The federal government's partial shutdown means work to repair and upgrade these buoys is stopped. Ed Verhamme is a Project Engineer with LimnoTech, a government contractor.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The parking lot was empty and the building was closed at the NOAA office in Ann Arbor.

The partial federal government shutdown could have wide-ranging consequences for the Great Lakes. There already are some problems, but things could get worse if the shutdown drags on.

We're in a lab/workshop with Ed Verhamme, Project Engineer for LimnoTech in Ann Arbor.

“Yeah, so we’re right now looking at our cache of buoys,” Verhamme said.

There are several yellow buoys with all kinds of tech gear. Some of these are used in Lake Michigan; others in Lake Erie. They take real-time measurements of things like water temperature, wind, currents and so on. Verhamme says the buoys have different jobs.

“These are used to support the City of Toledo and the City of Cleveland drinking water treatment plants, really understanding what are the lake conditions around the water intakes,” Verhamme explained.

The buoys are out of the water for maintenance. Some of them could get new tech to monitor even more things. Right now, though, no one is working on the buoys because of the partial shutdown of the federal government. LimnoTech is working under a federal contract.

“You can’t bill during the shutdown. You know, you can’t get paid. If you work, you risk not getting paid when they turn back on. So, contractors are really affected during the shutdown,” Verhamme said.

If the government doesn’t start back up soon, there will be no time to put new equipment on the buoys. They should be back in the water in March.

John Bratton is a Senior Scientist at LimnoTech. He used to run a federal government lab, the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. Bratton says the shutdown also means no data about the Great Lakes are being gathered by the many federal agencies that monitor the lakes. That has real-world on the ground –or in this case in the water- consequences.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
John Bratton is a Senior Scientist at LimnoTech. Formerly he headed up a federal government lab, the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

“Lake effect snow, for instance, there’s active research going on on that. There’s monitoring of ice cover that’s done by researchers, but is used by the Coast Guard. So, without that information, they’re kind of running blind,” Bratton said. 

That’s just the beginning. For example, the nuclear power plants on the shores of the Great Lakes use the federal data because they use a lot of lake water. They want to know if some kind of debris is headed for their intake pipes. Also that reactor cooling water that’s released back into the lake becomes slightly radioactive. That’s part of the normal operation of nuclear power plants. It would be good to know whether the currents are taking that toward a town’s water intake. None of that is happening because of the partial government shutdown.

At the Michigan Environmental Council offices in Lansing, Charlotte Jameson says there are other issues that are not being worked on.

“Issues like PFAS where we’re doing quite a lot of coordination with the EPA and with the Department of Defense, and obviously we can’t do that right now," Jameson noted.

Credit Courtesy MEC
Charlotte Jameson is the Energy, Policy, and Legislative Affairs Director for the Michigan Environmental Council.

She said there are so many agencies that would be gathering data useful to businesses and university researchers if not for the shutdown. Those data help determine everything from wildlife management to stormwater flooding to the Department of Defense monitoring PFAS contamination near its current and closed bases.

“Obviously, the longer the shutdown goes on, the greater the risk is to the Great Lakes,” she said.

Perhaps the biggest concern would be an oil spill right now.

“You need to know about ice cover, you need to know about current movements, and so that becomes, it’s already a challenging thing to respond to an oil spill in the Great Lakes during the winter and it becomes even more challenging without the federal government fully operating,” she said.

There is a spill response team ready to put out booms and skimmers depending on how much ice there is, but John Bratton, who ran the government lab, said a lot of federal employees would not be immediately available.

“They could be called back in the event of an emergency, but they’re going to come back at reduced strength. They don’t have their full lab up operating. They don’t have all their staff available,” he said.

No matter what, an oil spill would be bad. Without federal employees on the job, things could go sideways pretty quickly.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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