The threat of federal budget cuts to the US Geological Survey could end the development of California's earthquake early-warning system. Experts are warning that the cuts could mean trouble in a country that is already far behind in creating a warning system for the next big one. Patrick Healy reports for the NBC4 News at 4 p.m. on August 2, 2012.
Development of California's earthquake early-warning system would be halted as part of federal budget cutbacks passed by the House appropriations committee, according to an analysis by the Seismological Society of America.
Other areas of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program would also be curtailed. NBC4 obtained a copy of the analysis.
"The impact of these cuts would be debilitating," said Tom Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center and a member of the Seismological Society Board.
"These cuts, if they were enacted, would put a stop, essentially, to all new developments in earthquake science that the US Geological Survey drives forward. And that would include the early-warning system."
The seismological society's report examined the appropriations bill for the Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency and related departments. The bill passed out of committe on June 28.
The analysis (PDF) found that funding for the USGS Natural Hazards Mission would be cut by 20 percent. The proposed funding level is 26 percent below that requested by President Barack Obama, the report states.
The cuts would take the program back to 1977 funding levels, the report says.
The proposed cuts come as California already lags behind development of an early-warning system compared to technology seen elsewhere, such as in Mexico City and Japan.
"They have operational systems. We're still fiddling around with prototypes," Jordan said.
Development of the Advanced National Seismic System would also end, according to the budget analysis. Reductions in USGS staffing would be expected if the budget cuts extended into a second year.
The USGS has a Pasadena field office that works closely with seismologists across the street at the California Institute of Technology.
But it's not only scientists who worry about cuts to USGS earthquake programs.
"We use USGS data every day," said Larry Collins, a battalion chief with the Los Angeles Fire Department.
Collins works with the Urban Search and Rescue teams that have honed their earthquake
response skills when called to disaster areas in Haiti and New Zealand.
Collins is among those involved in the testing phase of early warning. He believes a working system would be enormously helpful in not only giving civilians and responder advance notice, but ultimately in shutting down mechanical systems such as elevators and high-speed trains that could be affected by a large quake.
Post-quake data from USGS already assists responders with "situational awareness," Collins said.
"This is not just theoretical science. The USGS has made a real effort over the years to actually put the science in our hands, and let us use it in the best way possible to save lives," Collins said.
There remains hope the cutbacks can be averted, even in the face of the enormous budget deficit confronting the federal government.
This week, the White House reached agreement with House and Senate leadership for a stopgap measure that would continue funding and avert cuts until next March.
The continuing resolution would put off hard decisions till after the November election. There is expected to be some opposition when the resolution is considered next month.
Regardless, even beyond March, cuts in the House bill have yet to be reconciled with the Senate.
Among members of the House committee, Burbank Democrat Adam Schiff said he is "confident that when the House and Senate conference their respective appropriations bills, we will be able to secure the funding for this vital program."