Budget tremors at Cajon Pass

FROM the standpoint of reducing earthquake hazards, file this under ``for the want of a nail....'' In California's Cajon Pass, scientists were drilling deep into the earth to take the pulse of the San Andreas fault. Note were. Federal budget cuts have stopped the drilling for at least two years - perhaps indefinitely. The cuts come despite tantalizing results that might help scientists develop short-term forecasts for major quakes along the San Andreas. In short, researchers are having to rethink how the fault generates quakes.

Lab work and theories predict that the fault can withstand a lot of stress before snapping. But data from the field indicate that the fault is only a tenth as strong as labs and theories suggest. Situated about two miles from the fault, the Cajon drill rig was to bore deep enough to give scientists a close look at the forces acting on the fault at depths nearer where earthquakes are spawned and under conditions that rule out other explanations for what they observed.

So far, the Cajon hole has confirmed the fault's weakness. But that could change if tests were made nearer the target depth of three miles. Now it looks as if a final answer will be a long time coming. At two miles deep, the hole is about half a mile and $1.2 million short for this fiscal year. Faced with a flat budget, the National Science Foundation was still able to come up with a $1.8 million ``loan'' against next year's funds so scientists could cap the well. But that still leaves them short of cash to study the results from the recent drilling, let alone to continue drilling. By fiscal 1990, the competition for research money will intensify, casting doubt on the site's future.

There is a double irony in Congress's inability to find money to finish the project. For '88 it costs more to halt the project than to let it drill out the year. And the cut comes several months after the National Academy of Sciences called on the United Nations to make the 1990s the International Decade for Natural Hazard Reduction. Results from the Cajon site not only affect earthquake hazard assessment in populous California. They may also apply to regions of the Philippines, New Zealand, Indonesia, and Turkey.

In a period of fiscal restraint, no project is beyond scrutiny. But given Congress's oft-repeated bows to basic science, $7.2 million seems a small price to pay for an endeavor that is leading to a better understanding of a natural phenomenon that can have such a far-reaching impact on society.

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