Budget Cuts Could Imperil Quake Research

by Robert Sanders

Key parts of California's earthquake monitoring network, including the world's primary experiment in earthquake prediction at Parkfield, will be dismantled or crippled if proposed cuts in the U.S. Geological Survey budget are enacted.

The proposed cuts are a mere drop in the federal budget--$8 million chopped from the requested $50 million for the USGS's National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program.

But the House Appropriations Committee directed that the cuts be made by lopping off the entire external grants program of NEHRP, a major source of money for university research on quake hazards and ways to reduce quake damage.

The NEHRP program fared better in the Senate than in the House. The Senate Appropriations Committee restored $4 million of this cut when considering the appropriations bill for the Department of the Interior. But full Senate action on the external grants program is less clear. The exact nature of the reductions will not be known until USGS has reviewed the Congressional Record.

Berkeley's Seismographic Station would lose nearly a million dollars if NEHRP's external grants program folded. That is more than a quarter of the station's yearly budget.

Such a cut would severely harm ongoing research at one of the world's major centers for earthquake studies. Berkeley scientists set up the first seismographs in the Western Hemisphere more than 100 years ago, and today the Seismographic Station operates in Northern California the most up-to-date quake detection instruments available.

UC would lose some $2.8 million on several campuses; California would lose about $5.5 million.

"It is the equivalent of turning off our weather satellites and firing all our meteorologists," said Tom McEvilly, professor of geology and geophysics at Berkeley and a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. McEvilly is one of the principal scientists monitoring the earthquakes and fault characteristics around Parkfield, Calif., in hopes of detecting changes that precede large destructive quakes, and which may help predict the occurrence of the larger quakes. "The cuts will eliminate the program, requiring us to use remaining funds in this year's budget to dismantle the experiment," he said.

Other Berkeley projects that would stall because they are partly funded by the U.S.G.S. are the Northern California Earthquake Data Center, operating expenses for Berkeley's state-of-the-art earthquake sensors and research at the Earthquake Engineering Research Center.

"The external grants program has been very cost effective and successful, and is necessary to the U.S.G.S.'s mission because it distributes funds for studies that the U.S.G.S. doesn't have the manpower to do on its own," said Seismographic Station Director Barbara Romanowicz, professor of geology and geophysics.

Berkeley programs that would come to a halt without support from NEHRP include the joint Northern California Earthquake Data Center, which gets nearly half its funding from the program, and the Parkfield project, which gets all its funds from NEHRP. An emergency response program crucial to the quake-prone Bay Area--a cooperative program with the U.S.G.S. called REDI, for Rapid Emergency Data Integration--would be severely crippled without these funds, Romanowicz said.


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