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7.4.3: The National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP)

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    Two earthquakes in 1975 strongly affected the decision to increase the involvement of the federal government in earthquake studies. The first was the Haicheng, China, Earthquake in February 1975, which had been predicted by the Chinese early enough to reduce greatly the loss of life, although it was not recognized at the time that the Haicheng earthquake was part of an earthquake swarm (see Chapter 7). The second was an earthquake in August 1975, close to the Oroville Dam, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada at the headwaters of the California Aqueduct. That earthquake, together with large earthquakes in China in 1962, Greece in 1966, and India in 1967—all of which had caused great loss of life—suggested that people can actually cause earthquakes by manipulating the water level of reservoirs and by the artificial pumping of fluids down boreholes for wastewater disposal or for improved recovery of oil. The Oroville earthquake finally laid to rest the view that earthquakes are acts of God in which humans play no role. The general public and, indeed, many people in the scientific community came to believe that earthquakes could be predicted and, by understanding the fluid pressures accompanying filling of reservoirs and pumping of fluids into or from wells, might even be controlled.


    Several USGS geophysicists undertook a project to re-level highway markers throughout southern California, including highways crossing the San Andreas Fault. These studies suggested that the Palmdale area, in the Mojave Desert close to the San Andreas Fault, was undergoing rapid uplift. Was this part of the fault, last ruptured in 1857, about to rupture again? The “Palmdale Bulge” was brought to the attention of Frank Press, the presidential science advisor to President Gerald Ford. This resulted in a special appropriation to the USGS to study the Palmdale Bulge and opened the door for a larger USGS role in earthquake studies. The USGS, in turn, provided research funds for university scientists, including myself, to participate in this study, thereby enlarging the earthquake research talent pool nationwide.


    The battle between the Coast and Geodetic Survey and the USGS over control of federal research dollars came to an end after the Geodetic Survey was taken over by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The first priority for NOAA was the sea, and budget cuts led NOAA to give up the fight in favor of the USGS.


    This led to the passage of the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977 (Public Law 95-124), which directed the president to establish a National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP, pronounced “Neehurp”). Among the objectives written into the law were 

    1. retrofitting existing buildings, especially critical facilities such as nuclear power plants, dams, hospitals, schools, public utilities, and high-occupancy buildings; 
    2. designing a system for predicting earthquakes and for identifying, evaluating, and characterizing seismic hazards;
    3. upgrading building codes and developing land-use policies to consider seismic risk;
    4. disseminating warnings of an earthquake, and organizing emergency services after an earthquake;
    5. educating the public, including state and local officials, about the earthquake threat, including the identification of locations and buildings that are particularly susceptible to earthquakes;
    6. focusing existing scientific and engineering knowledge to mitigate earthquake hazards, and considering the social, economic, legal, and political implications of earthquake prediction; and
    7. developing basic and applied research leading to a better understanding of control or modification of earthquakes.


    Objective (6) contains a word, mitigate, which might be unfamiliar to many, but which appears so often in public statements as well as legislation that a definition should be presented here. To mitigate means to moderate, to make milder or less severe. The earthquake program thus does not take on the job of eliminating the earthquake threat, but rather of moderating the problem—an important distinction.


    Ironically, three of the main arguments for establishing NEHRP did not prove to be worthwhile avenues of investigation. As discussed in Chapter 7, earthquake prediction is as far away from being achieved today as it was in 1977. Earthquake control is no longer taken seriously, as discussed further below. Finally, the Palmdale Bulge was reanalyzed, and it was found that most of the uplift signal was an artifact of survey error. Subsequent investigations using much more sophisticated space geodesy did not confirm the existence of a bulge.


    Although the 1977 law included several non-research objectives such as public education and upgrading of building codes, the legislation was primarily pointed toward research. The bill authorized new appropriations for two agencies, the USGS and the National Science Foundation, to conduct or to fund earthquake-related research through grants and contracts to universities and other non-governmental organizations. The legislation did not indicate how the non-research objectives were to be implemented. Instead, the president was directed to develop a plan for implementation. Furthermore, the legislation left unclear which agency was in charge.


    The president’s implementation plan, sent to Congress in 1978, gave much of the responsibility for implementation of Public Law 95-124 to a lead agency, but, as in the law itself, the lead agency was not specified. A multi-agency task force was given the responsibility to develop design standards for federal projects. In the following year, Executive Order 12148, dated July 20, 1979, designated the newly created Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as the lead agency. This decision was included in 1980 in the first reauthorization legislation for the earthquake program. This legislation included a fourth agency, the National Bureau of Standards, later to be renamed the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), as an integral—although small—part of NEHRP. The Department of Commerce had once been the only federal agency with a mandate to study earthquakes, but under NEHRP, NIST was the only part of the Department of Commerce to retain its federal mandate, and its role at that time was relatively small. However, NIST is now the lead agency for NEHRP, with an increased budget accompanied by increased responsibilities.


    NEHRP was reauthorized five more times without a significant change in the scope of the program. But by 1990 it was clear that Congress intended to make some changes. During the 1980s, it became apparent that the goal of earthquake prediction was not going to be achieved in the immediate future, as described in Chapter 7. The 1987 Whittier Narrows Earthquake struck Los Angeles and the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake struck the San Francisco Bay Area; neither had been predicted. Furthermore, as indicated in the Senate report accompanying the 1990 reauthorization bill, the application of NEHRP research findings to earthquake preparedness was considered slow and inadequate. The efforts of the four agencies were perceived as uncoordinated and unfocused. Finally, the goal of earthquake control was criticized as unrealistic and unattainable in the near future.


    A mental exercise illustrates the problems facing the goal of earthquake control. An experiment in 1969 had shown that small earthquakes in an oil field at Rangely, Colorado could be turned on and off by increasing the amount of water injected into or withdrawn from the oil field. When water was withdrawn, earthquake activity decreased. The added water pressure along existing faults in the oil field increased fluid pressure in the fault zones and caused them to move, producing small earthquakes. As in the case of filling the reservoir behind Oroville Dam, human activity was shown to have an effect on earthquakes.


    The suggestion was then made: could this be done on a larger scale at a major fault, where the results could mitigate the earthquake hazard? Specifically, could it be done for the San Andreas Fault? The idea was simple: drill several very deep boreholes along the thinly populated 1857 rupture zone of the San Andreas Fault in central California and inject water, thereby weakening the fault. The idea was to weaken the fault enough to trigger a smaller earthquake of, say, M 6.5 to M 7 rather than wait for another earthquake as large as the 1857 rupture, which was M 7.9. The smaller earthquake, or series of smaller earthquakes, would cause much less damage than a repeat of the 1857 earthquake. It would be the earthquake equivalent of a controlled burn to alleviate hazard from forest fires.


    There are two problems with this idea. First, the cost of drilling the holes for injection of water would be exorbitantly high—many millions of dollars to inject water deep enough to have an influence on the earthquake source ten miles or more beneath the surface. Second, what would be the legal implications of a triggered earthquake? What is the legal recourse for a person whose home or business is severely damaged in a triggered M 7 earthquake as opposed to the next M 7.9 earthquake, which might not have struck during his/her lifetime? What about the possibility of people being killed during the smaller event? Questions such as these led to the conclusion that earthquake control was not attainable in the near future, at least not by injecting fluids into a major, active fault zone. Returning to the forest-fire analogy: a controlled burn in the spring of 2000 went out of control and did severe damage to the town of Los Alamos, New Mexico. The legal fallout from that was, and is, sobering.


    The 1990 reauthorization bill passed by Congress eliminated some references to earthquake prediction and control, and it expanded efforts in public education and in research on lifelines, earthquake insurance, and land-use policy. It marked the beginning of the shift from a predominantly research program toward a broader-based program including implementation and outreach. The role of FEMA as the lead agency was clarified, including presentation of program budgets, reports to Congress, an education program, and block grants to states. New federal buildings were required to have seismic safety regulations, and seismic standards were established for existing federal buildings.


    The amount allocated for NEHRP was less than $60 million in fiscal year (FY) 1978 and around $100 million in FY 1994. In terms of constant 1978 dollars, the program received less money in 1994 than it did at its start-up in 1978. This problem has continued to the present day, exacerbated by the political conflicts in Congress over the national debt, to which one response was the budget sequester. In addition, there was commonly a disparity between the amount authorized and the amount actually appropriated by Congress. This disparity was greatest in FY 1979 and 1980, and again in FY 1992 and 1993, and continues to the present day. The effect of individual earthquakes was apparent. The only boost in constant dollars came in 1990 after the Loma Prieta “World Series” Earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the only time in the past ten years that appropriations were the same as authorization was after the Northridge Earthquake of 1994. On the other hand, the Landers Earthquake, which struck a thinly populated area in the Mojave Desert of California in 1992, had no impact on funding, even though it was larger than either the Loma Prieta Earthquake or the Northridge Earthquake.


    The lesson here is that politicians respond to an immediate crisis, but they have short memories for solving the problem in the long haul—particularly after the last earthquake fades into memory. It is again a difference in the perception of time, as discussed in Chapter 1. To an Earth scientist, the 1987, 1989, 1992, 1994, 1999, and 2003 California earthquakes and the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake are part of a continuum, a response to the slow but inexorable movement of tectonic plates. To a public official, and indeed to the public at large, each earthquake is an instant calamity that must be dealt with in the short term, without serious consideration for when and where the next earthquake will strike.


    We now consider the role of individual federal agencies, first those officially part of NEHRP, and then other agencies that play an important role in earthquake research but are not an official part of NEHRP.

    This page titled 7.4.3: The National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP) is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Robert S. Yeats (Open Oregon State) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.