Volcano Watch — HVO and government shutdowns

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Today we face the third shutdown of the Federal government since mid-November. The lack of an operating budget, now fully four months into the 1996 fiscal year, which began on October 1, has had a crippling effect on the efficient execution of our responsibilities and programs. 

NOTE: This article was not published by the Hawaii Tribune-Herald.

Today we face the third shutdown of the Federal government since mid-November. The lack of an operating budget, now fully four months into the 1996 fiscal year, which began on October 1, has had a crippling effect on the efficient execution of our responsibilities and programs. We did not know until the last second whether we would be able to come to work and do our jobs before the fiscal year began on October 1. Plans had been laid at that time for a shutdown of operations.

The continuing resolution that kept us in operation expired in mid-November, sending home all but a skeleton crew of four people at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. A second continuing resolution was then passed after workers had been sent home for six days. In early December, the Department of the Interior appropriations bill was sent to the President, who vetoed it due to disagreements he had with the bill, particularly with regard to certain Federal land-use issues.

In past years, the appropriations bill would have gone from the Congress to the President for signature during September, well before the start of the new fiscal year. The second resolution also expired without renewal in mid-December, triggering the longest shutdown of the Federal government in history. We were finally back at work on January 8, following three weeks of reduced operations.

During this long furlough, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory was manned by six members of our staff, who tried to keep our monitoring instruments functioning. Despite these efforts, at the end of three weeks, many of our instrumental "eyes and ears" on the volcanoes were no longer functioning with no personnel to repair them and no money to purchase spare parts. We were unable to provide the information needed by the National Park Service and by the Hawaii County Civil Defense to protect lives and property. Fortunately, the National Park was also closed during this long furlough, which greatly reduced the need for daily monitoring of the active flows from the ongoing eruption along Kīlauea's East Rift Zone.

Now the third continuing resolution will expire at midnight on January 26. At the time of this writing on the afternoon of the 26th, I do not know whether we will be furloughed a third time, whether a fourth continuing resolution will keep us operating until March 15 at 1995 funding levels, whether the Interior aporopriations bill will be passed and signed and will provide funding for the rest of the fiscal year, or whether the Interior bill will be passed but not signed. This last option might trigger a separate continuing resolution for the Department of the Interior that would fund us for the remainder of the year at 75% of last year's funding.

If the first option occurs, we will once again be operating with an emergency-level staff, of so-called "essential" personnel and no funds. I have requested, but do not know whether I will be granted, a fully functioning staff so that we can provide information to National Park Service's Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which now has funding under a separate continuing resolution for the remainder of the year.

If the last option takes place, then the U.S. Geological Survey would run out of funds sometime in July and would face furloughing all employees for up to 40 working days. Under this most dire scenario, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory would be closed entirely for most of August and all of September, and the seismic network that provides the early warnings of changes in eruptive activity would be shut down. Without the reports and updates from the Observatory, the National Park plans to close the Chain of Craters Road and all access to the eruption site.

Regardless of the outcome, the efficient running of our programs and any long-term planning have simply not been possible with the uncertainties under which we have existed these past months. A long-term plan has now come to mean next week, rather than the next month or year. This is no way to run an organization and certainly no way to reduce the cost of government.

Readers may be interested in the following editorial written by Dr. Gordon Eaton, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey.

How Do I Tell My Employees They Are Not Essential?

Gordon Eaton, Director,
U.S. Geological Survey

If the Federal Government shuts down again, I have no idea how I will explain to my employees -- the highly talented and dedicated men and women of the U.S. Geological Survey -- why they are no longer considered essential to the well-being and future of the United States. The problem is, I don't believe it for a minute myself.

How do I tell the hundreds of USGS people who have been working long hours in freezing weather to measure and monitor the floods in the Northeast that their hard work to help protect lives and property is regarded as no longer essential to their fellow Americans?

As we mark the anniversary of California's destructive Northridge earthquake (January 17, 1994), how do I tell our geologists and seismologists that they are not essential?

It makes no sense whatsoever, as our population grows, for me to tell dedicated scientists to stop assessing the very water, energy and mineral resources that are critical to meeting the growing demands of the country.

We are now nearly 80,000 water quality analyses behind because of the last Federal shutdown. How do I send our USGS water chemists home again and tell hundreds of state and local agencies responsible for drinking water safety that our work is not essential?

The American public pays about $50,000 a day to the Federal treasury to purchase USGS maps and related products to help build and re-build the Nation and to experience, develop and protect its resources. How do I tell our mappers and cartographers to go home, to stop answering the thousands of daily requests, because they and their maps are now deemed not essential?

All of us in the Geological Survey know that we must do our share to reduce the Federal budget. Not without considerable personal grief and pain, we have reduced the USGS staff by almost 20 percent in the last two years. And we are planning further significant belt tightening, even as we are being asked to expand our programs and responsibilities.

If there is another government shutdown, will the floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides and water quality problems also shut down? Will the Nation's growing thirst for water, energy and mineral resources stop? Of course not.

As a Nation, we will not stop paying the "disaster tax," that indirect, hidden cost of repairing, rebuilding, preventing and mitigating against the effects of earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and other natural disasters. A shutdown will not end this "tax" that according to recent estimates has averaged $50 billion a year. What the continued budget stalemate will stop is an important part of the scientific defense against such disasters. What the stalemate will shut down is part of the scientific effort to plan a more orderly future for the development, protection and recreational use of our natural resources.

Perhaps the final "essential" question that should be asked is: how can another shutdown possibly be in the best interest of the country?