The tsunami warning buoys that ring the Pacific and alert Hawaii and others to impending tidal waves could lose $1 million in funding if federal budget cuts take effect as proposed.

The cuts represent a sizable 16 percent reduction from last year’s budget and could mean that the federal government will cut back even further on maintenance trips to service the buoys.

“It may mean that our readiness drops a few percentage points from last year,” said Michael Angove, acting director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s tsunami program. “Hopefully not. Hopefully we’re able to leverage other opportunities and we’ll be smart about how we hit deployments. But the total amount that’s been proposed is less than it was last year.”

The U.S. maintains 39 DART buoys.

Last year’s buoy maintenance budget was $8.6 million — smaller than the previous year, Angove said.

The president’s draft budget for fiscal year 2013 specifically addresses the DART program and spells out even deeper cuts to the program.

A lot could happen between that draft budget and the one ultimately approved by Congress. But given the looming fiscal cliff and the federal funding squeeze expected in almost every sector, it’s tough to imagine the program getting any more money than it did last year.

One issue still to be worked out in budget negotiations is whether the $1 million reduction comes off of last year’s budget or the program’s historical budget.

The news certainly alarmed Hawaii’s congressional delegation.

Neither of Hawaii’s two congresswomen sit on committees that deal directly with the DART buoys, but Rep. Colleen Hanabusa has been the closest to the issue.

Hanabusa this year sent a letter to the House budget committee asking it to increase funding for the National Weather Service by $4.6 million over the president’s budget proposal. That would put the agency in line with FY2012 funding levels, said Richard Raposa, Hanabusa’s spokesman. Of that $4.6 million, Hanabusa asked that $1 million be used to offset the cut to the DART buoys.

Two Buoys in the South Pacific Cost the Most

The cost of servicing the buoy network varies between $6.5 million and $9.5 million, depending on the individual year, Angove said.

The buoys are supposed to be serviced every year, but doing so is expensive.

Some of the buoys are in remote parts of the ocean that take days to get to. Extreme seasons around other buoys, such as those off the Aleutian Islands, mean there’s only a short window for a trip.

“The cost going to sea is much like working in outer space, some of these buoys are very far from the nearest ports of call,” said Christian Meinig, director of engineering at the NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Lab in Seattle.

Buoy servicing trips require a large boat that costs between $20,000 to $25,000 a day to run.

NOAA has already had to cut back on service trips after last year’s budget cut.

Two buoys in the South Pacific near Chile — a region that has produced at least four significant tsunamis that hit the Hawaiian Islands — did not get serviced last year, Angove said.

“The rest of them across the Ring of Fire do get regular servicing,” he said.

He said his agency is also considering working with other countries that are closer to the buoys to see if there’s a way to collaboratively maintain those.

Angove said he does not expect budget cuts to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. The center, in Ewa Beach, has a staff of 15.

NOAA Unlikely To Buy New Buoys Anytime Soon

In direct response to budget cuts, federal researchers in Seattle spent five years developing a lighter buoy that can be launched and serviced from a fishing vessel, ultimately making it cheaper to maintain.

Russia, Australia and Indonesia have all purchased the buoys for use off their own coasts.

But even though NOAA paid to have them developed, Angove said that there are no immediate plans to swap out all the old buoys for the new ones. The upfront cost is too high, he said.

But he’s open to the idea of replacing older DART buoys that break down with the newer ones.

“We’ve got to figure out how to fold these into our overall strategy,” Angove said. “I have not been asked to expand the buoy network. So we’re maintaining the current 39 we have employed.”

He added: “If there’s congressional direction to add buoys, we can make use of them.”

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