Editorial: California is being a cheapskate with its earthquake early warning system


As scientists work to improve and expand an early warning system for West Coast earthquakes, they’ve been hampered by one state government’s refusal thus far to cover any part of its cost. That would be our state, California, which happens to be the one that’s absorbed 70% of the losses from previous U.S. quakes.

There’s no reliable way to predict when an earthquake is going to happen. Seismologists have learned, however, how to provide a few seconds or more of advance notice before a quake’s most damaging waves reach a community. They do so by focusing on the initial shocks from a quake, which are less powerful and radiate faster than the more powerful ones to come.

The system being developed by the U.S. Geological Survey, Cal Tech, UC Berkeley and others relies on a network of sensors along the fault lines to detect the start of a sizable temblor and broadcast an alert. The amount of time between the warning and arrival of the bigger shocks increases with one’s distance from the quake’s epicenter; in practice, they’ve ranged from a few seconds to half a minute or more. For example, when a 6.0 quake shook Napa Valley in 2014, warnings sent by an early version of the system reached San Francisco about eight seconds before the shockwaves. That’s enough time to save lives and property by slowing trains, shutting down heavy equipment and prompting residents to duck and cover.


Clearly, a warning system that is well integrated into daily life — as such systems are in Japan, Mexico and some other quake-prone countries — could yield savings many times the cost, which in California’s case is about $23 million to build and $11.4 million a year to operate. Yet some lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown balked at the price tag, so the legislation that authorized the state to start working on the system required it to be paid for by anybody but the state’s taxpayers — the people whom it would benefit the most. And while Congress has put up $13.2 million to help launch the project, the state’s unique refusal to cover any part of the cost threatens to alienate lawmakers and close the federal spigot.

As Brown rightly cautioned lawmakers earlier this year, the state budget isn’t healthy enough to launch a host of new programs that may have to be cut later when the budget tightens. But an earthquake early warning system would help the state fulfill one of its core duties, which is protecting the health and safety of its residents. The state should open its wallet for it.

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