COVID-19 may be starting to catch up to the agencies responsible for monitoring and protecting public water supplies, but a persistent watershed protection staffing shortage looms as a more serious threat, officials said Wednesday.
"Things are getting done. We are seeing a real surge with our staff. Yesterday, we had 60 employees out with either close contact, self-monitoring, actually with the COVID or symptoms thereof with unconfirmed test results yet," Fred Laskey, executive director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, said during a meeting of the Water Supply Protection Trust. "So it's starting to weigh on us, but we continue to get the job done."
At the Department of Conservation and Recreation, which shares watershed protection responsibilities with the MWRA, there have been "a few instances of COVID scares in our facilities" but none that have led to significant issues, John Scannell, director of DCR's Division of Water Supply Protection, said.
The real issue, Laskey and other members of the Water Supply Protection Trust said, is that DCR has determined that its Division of Water Supply Protection should be staffed by the equivalent of 150 full-time employees and has budgeted for that number of positions, but only has the equivalent of 130 full-time employees as of October. Laskey called it "the 800-pound gorilla in the room" at the start of the meeting.
Scannell reported to the Water Supply Protection Trust on Wednesday that DCR had been granted approval from the Executive Office of Administration and Finance to post eight of 19 vacant positions. He said DCR has already interviewed two State House rangers to transfer to fill positions and is working through the posting and hiring process for the rest.
"In the short run, can we get by? Yeah, we can get by in the short run," Laskey said. "But in the long run, eventually there's gonna be degradation of the watershed protection program because of the understaffing and then instead of being ahead of the curve, where we've been, we're going to be running behind trying to put out fires, and I say that figuratively, trying to play catch-up. And that's not a position we want to be in."