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Funding sought for study on earthquake warning system in Utah

Posted at 2:59 PM, Jan 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-28 19:28:12-05

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Legislature is being asked to spend $150,000 to study whether the state could benefit from new technology that could alert people of an earthquake about to hit.

"It gives us time — even if it’s 10 seconds — it gives us time to shut things off and make it more secure and save lives," Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, told FOX 13 News in an interview Friday.

She asked her colleagues on the legislature's Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee to fund the request. It would study if Utah could successfully implement an earthquake early warning system.

The system uses a network of sensors to pick up seismic activity and broadcast alerts about an event about to hit a population area, similar to an AMBER Alert. The more notice, the more safety measures can be taken. Trains can be stopped, people can take cover.

It has been experimented with in other states, but it is unclear if Utah's geology would allow for it to work.

"It is a different situation," said Dr. Keith Koper, a seismologist with the University of Utah. "There’s different faults, there’s different rocks, so what we’re essentially advocating for is a feasibility study."

Utah has a number of fault lines. The biggest is the Wasatch fault that stretches the length of the state's population center. A 5.7 magnitude quake in 2020 epicentered in Magna caused $70 million in damage and reminded many that we are in earthquake country.

"People always say was that the big one? It wasn’t the big one," said Utah State Geologist Dr. Bill Keach. "That was a 5.7. If we had a 6.0, a 6.1, that would have been twice the magnitude. Twice the amount of damage that would have been released. This is kind of a wake up call, but not necessarily a big one."

Dr. Keach said the odds are still high of a major earthquake in the Salt Lake City area. He told the committee a 7.0 or greater quake had the potential to kill 2,000 people initially and cause $30 billion in economic harm to the state.

"We could get a big one. One in two in the next 50 years, greater than 6.0 and about a one in five of 6.5 or greater. We get that big, we’re going to cause serious damage and if it comes at the wrong time of day you could probably have 80,000 homes [affected] in the great Salt Lake valley," he told lawmakers

The scientists who presented to the committee also had a list of things Utah should be doing to help mitigate damage. The Utah Seismic Safety Commission recommends:

  • Invest in seismic improvements for major water aqueducts feeding the Wasatch Front
  • Seismically unsound schools that put tens of thousands of children in danger
  • More than 140,000 Utah buildings have unreinforced masonry
  • Ensure adequate building code enforcement

"We’re kind of behind the ball," Sen. Iwamoto said.

The funding request was taken under consideration. Lawmakers won't be able to make a final decision on it until later in the legislative session when the overall budget is finalized. If Utah is able to implement an earthquake early warning system, it could cost millions to install.