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Lawmakers Must Fight for Geological Survey : Agency offers multiple benefits to ease quakes’ ferocity

As noted in two articles on the opposite page, there is a proposal abroad in Washington to abolish the U.S. Geological Survey. As noted here earlier, that’s a terrible idea. This federal agency, by one estimate, is involved in about three-fourths of the country’s earthquake research, representing a national resource that must not be cast aside.

On first encounter, in fact, the idea seems downright incredible--as if some bright-eyed budget-chopper proposed eliminating, say, the local fire department. One Caltech-based scientist said last week that there is no panic at the well-known USGS quake center there, because the research is obviously too important to abandon. After all, it represents only $50 million in a total agency budget of $584 million.

Maybe. But Washington’s dominant impulse is to destroy even worthwhile government efforts if necessary to finance the Republican Party’s promises in its “Contract With America.” Officials in the Interior Department are taking the threat seriously.

Worthwhile , of course, is too mild a term in this case. To residents of Southern California, hearing the benefits of earthquake research is a little like sitting through a lecture on the advantages of having teeth.

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Scientific research underlies society’s efforts to minimize earthquake damage and death. It helps estimate quakes’ likely intensity and frequency over the years. It leads to safer buildings and freeways. It warns of seismic hazards beneath proposed development. It saves lives and property. Someday, conceivably, it could save even more, through reliable short-term forecasts.

This work benefits not just California but other states that have big quakes, not just as often--not to mention foreign countries, with which the United States shares data.

The fact remains that the new chairman of the House Budget Committee, Rep. John Kasich of Ohio, has proposed to kill the agency.

If that happens, it is unrealistic to expect anyone else to start doing the USGS’s job. Other states seem to think earthquakes threaten only California, and state government here is still strapped. Gov. Pete Wilson, on his own tax-cut crusade, last week refused to budget a comparatively modest $300,000 so the Seismic Safety Commission could seek lessons from the Northridge earthquake.

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It’s true that the Republican Budget Initiative last year said of the USGS: “The basic research functions would be assumed by the National Science Foundation,” while the agency’s mapping and most water monitoring would be eliminated. It’s also true that Kasich is offering to “work with” California’s congressional delegation on quake safety.

These vague, non-binding statements are not promises--not a contract. So far, there is no firm proposal to shift USGS money elsewhere to continue its research. Kasich’s message is: The USGS is on our list of possible cuts; so are a lot of other things; we will evaluate all existing programs; and we are willing to talk about it.

Vague assurances may placate some people, maybe the sort who regard talk about the danger of earthquakes as exaggerated. Others will recognize the present danger to useful as well as wasteful government. To see that this important research continues, California lawmakers of both parties should begin working with the GOP leadership as quickly, and as firmly, as possible.


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