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Federal funds are in question for a forecasting program in Utah that collects and distributes information about potential floods and droughts.

The Department of Commerce's 1988 budget request does not include $650,000 needed by the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center in Salt Lake City, officials say.Without the money, the center, at the National Weather Service office at the Salt Lake International Airport, will lose a computer processor that guarantees timely, reliable weather data, said Director Gerald Williams.

Williams says the National Weather Service will have to scrap a five-year forecasting plan that would have given the agency better flood information based on snow data.

In letters of support for the program to U.S. House and Senate appropriations committees, Gerald R. Zimmerman, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, said, "loss of the program will increase the threat of loss of human life, property and natural resources along the Colorado River."

After 1983 flooding on the Colorado River, Congress appropriated about $2.7 million for purchase and installation of a hydrometeorological data network and a computerized data processing and management system. The equipment enables retrieval of data when it is needed.

Tony Willardson, associate director of the Western States Water Council, Midvale, said the Colorado River flood warning system has enhanced water supply forecasting capabilities. Such information also is important during droughts, he said. Data from some 148 sites can be logged as often as every 15 minutes.

Information provided includes temperature, precipitation, river stage, reservoir levels and the amount of water in snowpack.

The flood-warning system was so named because of flooding problems in 1983. But even with low flows, it's important to know the amount of water in the system, Willardson said.

Willardson, whose council represents the governors of Utah and 15 other Western states on water issues, said information from the warning system is used by federal, state and local agencies.

It also is used by Mexico and individual water users for flood control, power generation, irrigation and interstate and international water allocation.

During each of the federal fiscal years 1986 and 1987, $650,000 was appropriated by Congress to operate and maintain the information system. It is staffed by two electronic maintenance workers and three hydrologists, all of whom work in Salt Lake City.

The Reagan administration didn't request any money for the system in fiscal 1988 or 1989, and Congress did not add money as it did in fiscal 1986 and 1987.

In fiscal 1988 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, of which the weather service is a part, took money from other programs to continue operating the data collection system, but at reduced levels.

Unless Congress appropriates money for fiscal 1989, which begins Oct. 1, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has budgeted only $350,000, which would result in phasing out the system, said Willardson, who edits a weekly newsletter, "Western States Water."

As passed by the House of Representatives June 15, the Commerce Department appropriations bill (HR4782) includes no money for the system. However, the Senate Appropriations Committee on June 16 added $600,000 to its version of the House bill.

Final Senate action is not expected until after Congress returns from a Fourth of July recess. A final House-Senate conference will determine whether the system is funded. But that determination is not expected until late summer.