A state agency that plays a key role in preparing Oregon for hazards like earthquakes and landslides is not likely to be disbanded in 2022, as initially proposed by Gov. Kate Brown.
Since Brown unveiled that suggestion in a budget proposal unveiled in early December, a groundswell of support has emerged for the Department of Geology and Mineral and Industries, or DOGAMI. No stranger to budget tussles, the small, 40-person agency has seen a rousing defensive effort from lawmakers, scientists, local governments, organized labor and the mining industry.
“There did not seem to be support in the Legislature to break up DOGAMI,” state Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Portland, said Monday while chairing a subcommittee taking up the agency’s budget. “I heard from members of all four caucuses who were concerned about that approach.”
Under the governor’s budget proposal, DOGAMI would have continued on with reduced staffing in the first year of the upcoming two year budget. In the budget’s second year, DOGAMI would cease to exist. A portion of the agency that does geological hazard mapping and preparation would be shrunk by 17 positions, and placed inside another department, the Department of Land and Conservation Development.
The other side of the agency, responsible for mining regulation, would have been wholly transferred to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
Brown’s office has pinned the decision on years of budget uncertainty at DOGAMI. The side of the department that deals with geologic hazards like earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes has been heavily reliant on grant funding that is unstable. That’s led to the agency repeatedly requiring more from the state’s general fund than was budgeted for.
“The Governor recognizes the importance of DOGAMI’s work for the state, especially as it relates to tsunami preparedness, landslides, and other natural hazards,” Liz Merah, a press secretary for Brown, said in an email. “But this agency has struggled to retain grants that fund their core programs.”
In the current two year budget, which stretches from July 2019 through June 2021, the agency only initially received a single year of funding because of cost concerns. Lawmakers wound up granting DOGAMI a second year of funding in 2020.
By breaking up the agency, Brown’s office said it could save approximately $3 million and retain necessary scientific acumen. But that notion met fierce opposition Wednesday morning, as a budget subcommittee considered DOGAMI’s funding for the next two years.
“We have to break this cycle of inadequate funding and knee-jerk reactions and short term patches,” said Jeff Rubin, a former emergency manager for Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue who has helped Oregon plan for disaster. “I urge you and your colleagues to invest now rather than trying to pay the penalty down the road.”
Rubin and other testifiers pointed out the agency’s work in mapping the path of likely landslides in areas burned by wildfire. That work was highlighted in January, when heavy rains caused slides in an area of the Columbia River Gorge burned in the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire. Landslide mapping DOGAMI created following the fire helped emergency response teams decide which residents to alert and evacuate, said Jonna Papaefthimiou, with the City of Portland’s Bureau of Emergency Planning.
“Science to the rescue!” Papaefthimiou said. “Awesomely, DOGAMI had updated their landslide maps in 2017… We had already used that data to pre-plan high risk areas.”
DOGAMI also plays a big role in helping the state understand the risks involved with earthquakes, including the potentially massive Cascadia Subduction Zone quake scientists warn will strike the region at some point. State Rep. Dacia Grayber, D-Tigard, likened cutting that work to President Donald Trump’s administration disbanding pandemic response staffers in 2018, ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are currently living through a crippling pandemic that has brought our economy to its knees and taken the lives of far too many Oregonians,” Grayber said. “On the national level, we realized in horror that the very agency and group that had been tasked with pandemic preparation had been parceled out, eviscerated, and ultimately made irrelevant... The coming Cascadia earthquake is not hypothetical.”
While there seems to be agreement DOGAMI will live on, it’s not clear how lawmakers will find sustainable funding for the agency moving forward. Assuming a solution can be found, Brown’s office says the governor will pull back her proposal.
“The Governor is willing to consider other solutions so long as they are affordable, and they retain the core programs Oregonians rely on somewhere within state government,” Merah said.
Editor’s note: This story originally misidentified the party affiliation of state Sen. Kathleen Taylor. She is a Democrat.