October 22, 2010

Meteorological Earmarks and the U.S. Senate Race in Washington

There has been a lot of talk in the U.S. Senate race in Washington State about earmarks, and I thought I might give my perspective based on some actual experience with them.
Patty Murray (Democrat)

If you had asked me a few years, I would have been against them, but my mind has changed, based partly on my experience with the coastal radar. I now believe that earmarks are a useful tool, if used sparingly and with judgment.

Dino Rossi (Republican)

Consider the coastal radar that will be installed next September on the central Washington coast. Without earmarks this extraordinarily important device, one that will save lives and greatly enhance our lives, would not have happened.

A classic argument against earmarks is that all appropriations should go through the normal process, with budget requests from agencies vetted by congressional committees. Sound good. But for over a decade many of us tried to go this route in pushing for the coastal radar. The case was compelling but some folks in the National Weather Service opposed it and letters from Congressmen and Senators fell on deaf ears.

Nothing happened until the big storm in December 2007, after which Senator Maria Cantwell took a personal interest in the project after listening to her constituents in coastal Washington. Senator Maria Cantwell

Subsequently, with the aid of Senator Murray, Senator Cantwell was able to secure an EARMARK for the first two million dollars for the radar acquisition. And the rest is history. Next September we will be able to see, for the first time, the structure of approaching weather systems from off the Pacific. The folks in Gray's Harbor County and surrounding areas will be able to plan their lives with the guidance of the radar. Fishers and marine interests will have the protection of the radar while they do their work. And this would not have have occurred without the intervention of our U.S. Senators.

My conclusion. Washington D.C. bureaucracies sometimes don't have a good understanding what is happening and needed out in the field, in communities hundreds or thousands of miles away. Our Senators and Congressmen/women have an intimate acquaintance with their area and know where the acute needs that slipped through the cracks. Therefore, we need earmarks.

Yes, I know there have been some abuses and some earmarks have been problematic. But my reading through the earmark lists suggests that the majority of them are well-intentioned attempts to fix problems or to deal with issues that the government bureaucracy missed.

It seems entirely appropriate that a few percent of the U.S. budget should go to earmarks. Perhaps there are reforms that could make this fairer, such as insuring that all states get an equal shot based on their populations, irrespective of whether their congressional folks are well positioned on critical committees or in leadership positions. But a flat rejection of earmarks does not seem reasonable and from my perspective earmarks were absolutely critical in securing a critically needed piece of meteorological hardware for our state.

Forecast Update: The Sunday storm looks similar to what we expect last night. Strong winds over the ocean and right along the coast. Not much over Puget Sound during the day on Sunday, but it will blow to the north of the Strait of Georgia and the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca.

UW Dawg Dash:

At 9:30 AM on Sunday the UW Dawg Dash will take place (fun run to support scholarships and other good works) and I have been asked to be the official starter (http://www.promotionevents.com/dawgdash/) I believe the idea is that a meteorologist might placate the rain gods with some sort of professional incantation. At this point I have been unsuccessful--the latest model runs show showers that morning around that time. Perhaps some incense will help.


  1. I assume you meant "This would NOT have occurred without the intervention...".

    BTW, Cliff: Does your blog get significantly more hits during storm season?

    Thanks for all you do.

  2. But the founding fathers didn't say we should have coastal radar! And their wisdom was supreme, wasn't it?

  3. The founding fathers of our nation were enthusiastic weather observers! Many of them (e.g., Thomas Jefferson) took daily observations and Ben Franklin was the first to describe how weather forecasts could be made. I am SURE that if Doppler radar technology was available then, they would explicitly required the U.S. government deploy them.

  4. Thanks for that timely perspective - I am really glad that the radar finally got funded. There are many other examples of very helpful earmarks from transportation projects to support for Washington State universities. Chances are that Rossi would go after earmarks just as much as any other Senator. For a Senator to shun earmarks would mean millions in lost funding for the state, and our tax dollars going to other states. Thus, this anti-earmark rhetoric is just a lot of hot air, no matter how good it feels to the Teaparty faithful. The key is having a legislator who is wise and not wasteful with earmark spending. We have that in both our senators. Whether we would have that with Rossi is an open question.

  5. Cliff:
    You say that your view of earmarks changed "partly" because an earmark provided funding for something you advocated. Could you let us know what else changed your mind? If a few years ago you were against them what has changed to the point that you now find the "majority" of earmarks "well-intentioned"?

  6. Perhaps Cliff, but it's not in there, therefore it must be unconstitutional!

  7. I agree and respect you very much, this comment is not directed at you, but more of a general comment that most people complain about earmarks until one directly benefits them.

  8. Thanks for your reasoned discussion on the matter of earmarks and community needs. I am in agreement with this approach where legitimate needs that are ignored by the bureaucracy can be developed and implemented. After all the revolution was fought over taxation without representation!

  9. One problem with earmarks is that dollars can get thrown in the direction of the loudest voice or best feel good photo op without an overall assessment of how to deliver the best real value for the money on the table. It might have been better to spend the funds planned for the radar towards a concerted research effort to add 20% improvement to 48 hour forecasts. That would be real early warning for a region that is not routinely threatened by severe thunderstorms or tornado activity.

  10. What I'm curious about is why anyone in the Weather Service opposed that radar.

  11. I agree that some of the earmarks have produced positive benefits and local knowledge about needs is often better than the knowledge from the "other" Washington. Maybe a better approach would be if each Senator got an amount related to the population in their state to distribute to projects or maybe based on the amount of income tax generated from their state.

  12. Cliff, it's 7:50 and I've been up all night listening to the rain. It seems to have stopped for the run. Well done.
    Rebecca Loudon

  13. mjgrota said: "It might have been better to spend the funds planned for the radar towards a concerted research effort to add 20% improvement to 48 hour forecasts."

    In this case, no. The problem is not quality of forecasting problem it's an model initialization and verification problem. it's lack of solid medium level observable from the Eastern Pacific to start the models. And then you need to compare to the model forecasts to the current data so that you know how much you can believe it. Plus the radar servers a pure research function (dual polarization for precip monitoring).

    Even in this weekends storm the models are not doing a great job of saying where the low will go when it hits the Canadian coast. Does it just stall up and fill in (GFS-WRF) or does it continue to the east (and give us more interesting winds (MM5-NAM)?

    I'd also love to know why folks at the NWS opposed this one too. I suspect one might have to go to an AMS chapter meeting to get the details. :)

    My bet would be on East and SE US NWS folks who still think that the PNW doesn't get any "real" storms.

    I also presume it's zero funding game in radars so somewhere in (well covered) tornado alley someone didn't get a high-res Doppler they were hoping for. Did our radar move from the Gulf coast (where it's been an itinerant one? At one of the USAF WX training stations which now has duplicate coverage).

  14. Hi Cliff - This is Derek Belt with the UW Alumni Association. Thank you so much for serving as the starter for this year's Dawg Dash. It couldn't have been a better year to have you there with the rain turning on and off like a faucet. Thanks again, and I hope to see you soon!



Rare Upside Down Lightning Viewed over Puget Sound

On Friday evening, camera 3 of Greg Johnson's wonderful Skunk Bay weather site captured an extraordinary lightning picture (see below),...