The Future of the U. S. Geological Survey as the Agency Changes Directors (11/05)

The following column by AGI/AIPG Geoscience & Public Policy Intern Amanda Schneck is reprinted from the November 2005 issue of The Professional Geologist, a publication of the American Institute of Professional Geologists . It is reprinted with permission.

The thirteenth director of the USGS, Dr. Charles “Chip” Groat, said goodbye to the survey on June 17, 2005, returning to the University of Texas at Austin to become the founding director of the new Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy, a new public policy program within the Jackson School of Geosciences. Groat’s permanent replacement has yet to be named by President Bush and for the interim, the Department of the Interior has named Dr. P. Patrick Leahy to be acting director. Leahy is a thirty-year veteran of the USGS who currently oversees the geology programs, though he started his tenure at the Survey as a hydrologist working in the water programs. With a change of directors at the USGS and a tightening of federal discretionary spending, it is a critical time to consider how the USGS has advanced during Groat’s seven year tenure and where the Survey is headed in the coming years.

Groat has helped the USGS gain greater visibility on Capitol Hill as an agency that provides objective scientific data to understand how the natural environment works, how we can extract energy, mineral, and water resources, how people are changing the environment and how we can mitigate natural hazards before they become disasters. Emphasizing the need for the USGS to deliver science that people can use and relate to, Groat successfully argued against several proposed large budget cuts that would have decimated key programs within the Survey.

The Survey received a budget increase of $69 million in fiscal year (FY) 2001, the last year in which the Clinton administration was involved in the budget process. Since then the USGS budget has increased from $883 million in FY 2001 to $950 in FY 2002, dropping to $919 million in FY 2003 due to the effort by the Bush administration and Congress to decrease discretionary funding to deal with the deficit, defense, social security, and medicare. The budget has increased since then and has returned to FY 2002 levels, with $946 million appropriated in FY 2005. Given the change in budget priorities, Groat led a successful and relentless campaign to make sure that core programs in water and hazards continued to receive necessary funding increases. The budget trend indicates that USGS leadership has had to work hard to prioritize the agency’s objectives and explain these to appropriators in Congress. For FY 2006, the Administration requested a total of $933.5 million for the Survey, a 0.2% drop from FY 2005, while the conference committee has restored funds by appropriating $963 million. Following the same tug-of-war of previous years, the House and the Senate have restored some of the major budget cuts proposed for the mineral resources and water resource programs while providing small increases in funding for mapping and hazards programs. The Survey under Groat’s leadership has emphasized its programs in natural hazards and water resources because there are obvious and significant societal impacts that Survey research and data can address.

During Groat’s tenure, the USGS placed increased emphasis on monitoring and mitigating the risks of natural hazards. The Survey continues to develop real-time natural hazard monitoring systems and to determine the best ways to relay this information to the relevant authorities and to the general public. Groat helped to make the USGS more serviceable to the public by ensuring that Survey data is available to mitigate or understand hazards and by ensuring that Survey scientists are available to explain hazards to law makers, emergency responders, and the general public. With the catastrophic tsunami of December 26, 2004 in the Indian Ocean and less catastrophic reminders of natural hazards in the United States, such as the renewed eruption of Mt. St. Helens and landslides and earthquakes in California, it is not too surprising that the administration and Congress have agreed to small increases for the Geologic Hazards program for FY 2006 besides providing increased funding for hazards in 2005 in an emergency supplemental the tsunami warning system. Nonetheless, it will be important for Leahy and the new director to maintain the clear and concise communication that Groat ensured was provided to law makers and the public about the Survey’s role in hazards mitigation.

Another important program that was emphasized during Groat’s directorship was the Water Resources program, which works in cooperation with state, local, and tribal governments to provide hydrologic information so that the nation can wisely and effectively manage water resources. With growing concerns about water quality and availability, increasing demands for water supplies for power and industry, growing populations in water-limited regions and relatively more severe cycles of drought and floods, the program has become even more valuable to policy makers, land-use planners, and the public. The budget for the water programs has increased slightly since FY 2001, with the budget growing from about $204 million to just over $211 million in FY 2005. Although the federal government and the Department of Interior have increasingly recognized the growing concerns about water issues and the importance of the Survey’s water programs, the Bush administration has repeatedly suggested decreasing funds for parts of the water programs. For FY 2006, the President proposed eliminating all of the Water Resources Research Institutes. Congress has restored the funding for the institutes and has slightly increased the overall funding for the Survey’s water programs for fiscal year 2006. Part of Groat’s legacy includes keeping Congress well-informed about the necessity of the Water Resources program.

Without a permanent director for the USGS, the Survey will have weakened abilities to chart its future directions. Certainly, the acting director, Pat Leahy, has the expertise and management skills to lead the Survey. Leahy is a hydrologist by training, who has worked at the USGS for 30 years. Before becoming the acting director he was the Associate Director for Geology, in charge of the nation’s federal Earth-science programs, with responsibilities for federal Earth-science programs, which include worldwide earthquake hazards monitoring and research, geologic mapping of land and seafloor resources, volcano and landslide hazards, and assessments of energy and mineral resources. Before that he was Chief of the National Water-Quality Assessment Programs. Leahy has worked with the hazards and water programs that Groat emphasized during his tenure and Leahy could do the same. Hopefully President Bush will name a new director in the near future, so the USGS can advance to fulfill our nation’s critical needs at a critical time with strong leadership and direction.

Amanda Schneck graduated last May from Susquehanna University, a small liberal arts college in central Pennsylvania. While at Susquehanna, she earned a B.S. in Environmental Science with a minor in Mathematics. She studied abroad in Australia, completing a semester at Melbourne University and a field camp at James Cook University, where she studied depositional processes related to rainforest and reef environments. Amanda's experience at AGI will guide her as she pursues a Master's in Environmental Policy from Bard College involving a 2+ year project through the Peace Corps.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Professional Geologist, published by the American Institute of Professional Geologists. AGI gratefully acknowledges that permission.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Posted November 10, 2005

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