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WEATHER SERVICE FEARS THE IMPACT OF GOP COMMERCE BILL

The Salt Lake forecast office of the National Weather Service is one of 62 such offices around the country that could be closed under the proposed Department of Commerce Dismantling Act.

Closure of the offices would have huge negative economic and other impacts on hundreds of thousands of people and scores of services in Utah and across the nation, according to an official with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.Marilu A. Trainor, a public affairs specialist assigned to the NWS' western region headquarters office in Salt Lake City, said passage of HR1756 in its present form would force the closure of 62 of the nation's 118 weather forecasting offices. The remainder would be transferred to the Department of Interior.

Republicans have said HR1756 is aimed at shrinking the size of government and reducing the federal deficit. The legislation would dissolve the Department of Commerce, the umbrella agency that includes the NWS and NOAA.

Nationwide, the weather service budget would be cut 25 percent below its fiscal 1994 funding level of $654.2 million. That would be to operate in fiscal 1996 and beyond, Trainor said.

In Utah, passage of the legislation, she said, would not only affect weather forecasting operations but services provided by the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center. In 1994, weather and river forecasting operations moved to a new $3 million facility near the Salt Lake International Airport. William J. Alder is the meteorologist in charge of the weather forecast office, and Dave Brandon heads the river forecast center.

Other NWS western region offices that could be affected include Grand Junction, Colo.; Elko, Nev., Flagstaff, Ariz.; Pocatello and Boise, Idaho; and Las Vegas, Trainor said.

Sponsored by Rep. Dick Chrysler, R-Michigan, HR1756 has not come before the U.S. House or the Senate for a vote, but the measure has seen committee action.

Rep. Enid G. Waldholtz, R-Utah, is the sole Utah co-sponsor among 65 other co-sponsors in the House. The bill has been strongly resisted by President Clinton.

She said that forcing the weather service to operate on 25 percent less that it received in fiscal 1994 would mean, for example, that advance warnings for severe storms such as tornadoes, high winds, hurricanes and heavy precipitation could be set back 20 years.

The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center and other similar centers provide river and flood forecasting information. Without it, warnings of floods would be reduced by 12 to 18 hours, and the ability to mitigate loss of life and property due to flooding would be severely reduced, Trainor said.

Some weather service offices slated for closure during the federal agency's modernization program would close earlier than planned. The NWS' mission to provide uniform protection of life and property from severe weather events throughout the nation would be compromised, Trainor pointed out.

For example, lead times for severe storm warnings, currently 10 to 20 minutes ahead of a storm, could be set back 20 years - when there were often no advance warnings, she said.

Trainor said NOAA would lose half of its satellite capability, resulting in a blackout should a working satellite fail. Elimination of one of the two geostationary operational environmental satellites would affect hurricane warnings and severe storm warnings. The elimination of one or two polar satellites would reduce the accuracy of three to five-day forecasts, the official added.