Storm Brews Over Weather Service Cuts

As Clinton and Congress move to privatize sectors of the National Weather Service, those most affected by the cuts - farmers - ask whether private firms are up to the job

LAST spring, as his apple orchards blossomed snow-white, Dick Keller tuned in to the local weather forecast.

More than idle curiosity, the information can make or break his business.

What Mr. Keller heard, though, wasn't the familiar National Weather Service relaying highly detailed temperatures that indicate whether he should irrigate to warm the air and save his apple trees from frost.

Instead he got a private weather company's version of the report - a trial to see if apple growers could get the information they need without the National Weather Service. Keller was not reassured.

''I called the radio station and told them how poor I thought it was,'' says Keller, who is president of Northwestern Fruit & Produce Company in Yakima, Wash. ''There are some things that are better done by government.''

Perhaps. But both the White House and Congress are moving to make major cuts in the National Weather Service.

The brewing controversy over who provides weather forecasting services represents more than just a turf battle between farmers - who now get a crucial service for free - and private weather firms, who say they are up to the task if the federal government will give them an opportunity.

The conflict goes to the heart of the political debate over where to draw the line between the appropriate roles of the federal government, state government, and the private sector.

Washington's move to cut the Weather Service is largely prompted by the effort to reduce federal spending across the board. How big the cuts will be is uncertain.

The Clinton administration recently announced plans to eliminate several agency operations to be replaced by private weather-forecasting firms. Total savings: $3 million annually, four-fifths of it from agricultural forecasts. Most of the remaining savings would come from cutting forecasts for intentional or ''prescribed'' fires on state or private land.

Traditionally, Congress has sheltered the service from cuts. But even it is considering trimming Weather Service funding by 8 percent in 1996, compared with Clinton's 3 percent cutback plan.

But farmers who like their current service question the cuts. ''We don't understand why it's OK to warn a Midwest businessman that a tornado is coming,'' and not help farmers protect their property from frost damage, says Leslie Caviglia, a citrus farmer in Visalia, Calif.

Jeffrey Smith, executive director of the Commercial Weather Services Association in Washington, D.C., asks why the general taxpayer should be asked to fund services tailored directly for a specific industry. A storm warning, such as for a tornado, is something the Weather Service should and does provide to all citizens, he says.

''Penny wise, pound foolish,'' responds Ms. Caviglia, vice president of California Citrus Mutual, a trade association. She says the nation's $4 billion frost-sensitive fruit industry, including her oranges and plums, is protected by preventive actions farmers take based on the forecasts.

But some private companies already serve farmers.

''We've been doing this for 15 years,'' says Don Schukraft, manager of Weather Network Inc. in Chico, Calif., which has clients in agriculture as well as the electric-utility industry and municipal government. He says specialized services can be delivered at relatively low cost. Some experts say the cost could be as low as $1 a day per farmer, if they buy as a group.

''We feel confident that private meteorologists can successfully manage these four additional programs being transferred to them,'' Weather Service director Elbert Friday said on July 5, when the cuts were announced.

Passing the buck

Here in Olympia, Wash., Randy Acker offers another perspective on the tax burden question: As a state Department of Natural Resources official, he is worried that the closure of a Weather Service office here may wind up saving federal taxpayers money, but add to the burden on the state.

''The reality is that there are not federal taxpayers and state taxpayers. They are one and the same,'' says Mr. Acker, division manager for resource protection.

Olympia's two-man National Weather Service office is located in the same building with state specialists, allowing the two agencies to pool their efforts in fighting wildfires and managing ''prescribed burns'' by government agencies or timber firms.

Under the Clinton plan, the Weather Service would continue providing forecasts related to wildfires and to prescribed burning on federal lands. But the agency would cease its non-wildfire services for state agencies.

This withdrawal of federal effort is occurring just as prescribed burning becomes a more popular resource-management tool, says John Werth, a Weather Service meteorologist here. Their forecasts currently help the state decide about granting permits to private firms to burn ''slash'' piles left over from logging, or when conditions are right for spraying pesticides to protect forests.

''Whether it's a bug or a fire, it doesn't stop on the ownership boundary'' between federal land and state or private land, says Steven Meacham, Washington State's assistant manager for resource protection.

The two federal meteorologists are slated to be moved to Seattle under the Clinton plan, to integrate wildfire forecasting more closely with the Weather Service's state headquarters. But this means they will work less closely with the state's two specialists in fire weather reporting.

Left high and dry

Meanwhile, Caviglia also takes issue with the timing of changes. Private-sector weather services, she says, ''are not prepared to offer the specificity of information that we need ... by October,'' when the Weather Service is scheduled to drop its agricultural forecasts.

She would like to see the current service retained. Short of that, she wants the government forecasts to continue for another year to give farmers time to arrange sufficient private services.

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