House spending bill restores funding for West Coast earthquake warning system

Key Points
  • A House fiscal 2018 spending bill passed Thursday restores money the Trump administration cut for a West Coast earthquake early warning system, allowing for limited public rollout of the program.
  • The omnibus bill sets aside nearly $23 million for the system known as ShakeAlert, or more than doubles the funding from last year.
  • Mexico City and Japan already have earthquake early warning systems, but the U.S. has lagged behind because of the lack of stable funding for the program.
  • The Trump administration proposed pulling funding for the earthquake early warning system in its 2018 budget request and also has requested cuts in the 2019 budget.
Dr. Lucy Jones, Senior Advisor for Risk Reduction, U.S. Geological Survey explains how P-waves and S-waves are created by an earthquake during a press conference in which Senator Alex Padilla announces at Caltech in Pasadena, Ca. that he is introducing legislation to create an earthquake early warning system in California on January 28, 2013.
Anne Cusack | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

The U.S. Geological Survey's West Coast earthquake warning system appears to be a winner in the House's $1.3 trillion spending bill passed Thursday. The bill restores money the Trump administration's budget cut and allows for a limited public rollout of the program.

The omnibus spending bill for the fiscal year ending in September 2018 provides $22.9 million for the early warning system known as ShakeAlert, including a $2.7 million increase over 2017 funding. It also gives the USGS a one-time $10 million investment for costs to continue building out the system with additional remote sensors on the West Coast.

When completed, the ShakeAlert system could provide people on the West Coast with seconds or up to a minute of warning ahead of shaking to prevent injuries and loss of life. Mexico City and Japan already have earthquake early warning systems, but the U.S. has lagged behind because of the lack of stable funding for the program.

"The significant funding provided in the bill will help ensure that the West Coast has a functioning earthquake early warning system in the near future," Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., said in a statement. "I will continue to be a champion for this life-saving technology that can have a significant impact when big earthquakes strike."

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., another West Coast lawmaker who has fought to restore funding for the ShakeAlert program, stated: "The system will not only help protect infrastructure and businesses, but also prevent injuries and save lives across California, Oregon and Washington."

More than $26 million in federal money has already been invested in the ShakeAlert program. The states of California and Oregon also have chipped in funding to support the program.

Work on the system started a decade ago as a collaboration between the USGS and several universities on the West Coast that run the seismic sensor networks.

Today, the ShakeAlert system remains in the testing stage, although California is in the process of launching a "limited public roll out" this year that will focus on utilities, health care, transportation and education. The USGS is already working with the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second-largest district, to test ShakeAlert initially in three schools, with plans for possible expansion later.

The date of the final public rollout of the ShakeAlert system is undetermined, according to officials, and depends on several factors, including continued funding, seismic station buildout and other issues.

The system calls for about 1,700 seismic stations. As it stands now, the system is at roughly the halfway mark in terms of completion. It is estimated that a full system of sensors will cost just over $38 million to build out along the West Coast, with annual operating and maintenance costs of some $16.1 million.

The Trump administration proposed pulling funding for the earthquake early warning system in its budget request for fiscal year 2018 by $8.2 million to $10 million.

The House's action Thursday restores funding in the current fiscal year for the earthquake warning system and the nearly $23 million set aside is more than double the $10.2 million approved in the prior year for the program's development. Congress has not yet acted on a proposal for fiscal 2019, but proponents of the program remain hopeful.

"We saw a rise in funding that we didn't necessarily anticipate on this newly restored funding," said Leland O'Driscoll, manager of the University of Oregon's Oregon Seismic Network, one of the West Coast university groups participating in the ShakeAlert program. "So a lot of the champions, plus a growing list, are onboard for the ask for fiscal 2019."

Overall, President Donald Trump's administration proposed cutting $26.7 million from the USGS budget for natural hazards programs in fiscal 2019, including about $13 million less in earthquake hazards programs. The request also cut more than $10 million from the earthquake early warning system.

"I've been fighting for this funding because ShakeAlert and other early warning systems are literally lifesavers," said Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., in a statement. "In the event of an earthquake or tsunami, this funding could buy a few extra minutes for teachers and their students, doctors and their patients in the middle of a surgery, or a commuter crossing a bridge."

USGS, which is part of the Department of the Interior, declined comment for this story. In announcing the fiscal 2019 request in February, the Interior Department said, "the 2019 budget prioritizes funding for critical responsibilities and core mission activities."