Empire Editorial: City should fully fund the avalanche center

Posted: Sunday, October 21, 2007

As the snow creeps ever closer down the sides of the mountains, we are reminded that winter is almost upon us.

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Last winter dumped an impressive 195.3 inches of snow on the capital and brought fears of massive urban avalanches. Although Juneau survived the threat, it was assuring to know we had an alert team monitoring the snowpack, which helped city officials and residents gauge the need for emergency shelters.

The Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center may not be able to provide forecasts this year due to a funding shortfall. The center needs an extra $77,000 from the city to operate for the six-month-long forecast season that begins Nov. 1.

Why is the Juneau Assembly dithering about funding something as vital as avalanche forecasting?

To the city's credit, it has already given the center $50,000 plus an additional $10,000 in the form of a grant, but that only accounts for 38 percent of the money needed for full operation.

There are some on the Assembly, most notably Assembly member Bob Doll, who support fully funding the center. But there are others who are balking at the cost.

Some people would argue that the center already has enough money to operate for roughly three months. Why not just forecast during the last three months of the season when the avalanche danger is greatest?

According to the center's Director Bill Glude, the center needs to monitor the snowpack starting with the first major snowfall through the end of the season for forecasts to be effective.

Glude, who is a nationally recognized expert in the field, says there needs to be constant fieldwork to monitor how new snowfalls affect the base layer. It would be impossible for the center to accurately forecast if it only monitored the tail-end of the season.

Assistant Mayor Merrill Sanford has said the Assembly has demonstrated a strong commitment to the forecast program with past funding, but if more money is needed, the city should look at all the alternatives.

So far, the only options on the table are seeking alternative bids for avalanche forecasting, having the city set up its own office and staff it with its own professional team, or ask the state to provide funding.

But the city doesn't have any time left to seek bids; the snow season starts in two weeks. Glude said even if the city had time, he doubted it could find a private firm that would do the job for less than his nonprofit. Glude also pointed out the difficulty in finding qualified forecasters. North America has roughly 200 to 300 avalanche forecasters, and most have already lined up work for the winter, Glude said.

The city may find a cost-savings if it were to set up its own avalanche office, but this doesn't help it get through this season.

As for the state, the Alaska Legislature hasn't funded a statute calling for the funding of avalanche forecasting since the 1980s. It's highly unlikely that lawmakers would begin funding now.

What's at issue here is the cost of four people to operate the center. Each would receive about $20,000 for six months of work. There needs to be three field-workers: Two would work together as a team with the third rotating in to help provide service seven days a week. Glude said a field-worker's hours vary due to conditions but that a typical day's fieldwork is 10 hours.

At the height of avalanche danger, however, it's not unheard of to put in 18-hour days. For that reason Glude said he pays field-workers by the month and not hourly.

A fourth person would manage the office. It's a full-time, 40-hour-a-week job to pay the bills, deal with insurance as well as take care of the hidden expenses necessary to run a nonprofit.

Glude said his books are open if the city is still suspicious of the cost. He says the cost to pay his staff is the equivalent of two low-level city employees, plus benefits.

One could argue that in the era of global warming, perhaps we shouldn't worry so much about avalanches. Nevertheless, the climatologists that Glude has worked with say Juneau could be heading into a 20-year cycle of colder winters. If this is true, we could be facing a weather double-whammy: Global warming will give us greater precipitation, and colder winters would result in more of that precipitation coming down as snow, increasing the avalanche danger.

Regardless, it's unconscionable that the city would leave 60 homes, a hotel, a boat harbor and several roadways without an adequate avalanche forecast.

The long-term solution to the snowslide danger is to move people out of the avalanche chutes. The city has taken small steps in buying back property when it has become available. But this will take many years.

In the meantime, the city should provide residents with regular forecasts so residents can determine their level of danger and react before a slide occurs.

It would be criminal for Juneau residents to live in blind fear this winter because of penny-pinching by the Assembly.

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