Senator's proposal to curtail free weather service rocks the boat



David Gibson, commodore of Club Beneteau, sailed last summer from Annapolis to Black Island, N.Y., on a weekend trip.

Along the way, he listened to repeated weather broadcasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, as well as a weather routing service from a private-sector source.

"We listened to NOAA the whole way," he said. "I look on the NOAA broadcast as a safety assistance, just like the weatherman on TV. They don't always get it right. No one does. But they provide a particular service for the short-term sailor and the weekend sailor. Those sailors rely on NOAA."

If Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has his way, the free NOAA broadcasts - as well as other weather data provided free online by the National Weather Service and used by countless boaters in Annapolis and beyond - could become a thing of the past.

Santorum, a Republican, says the service often duplicates information offered by the private-sector weather industry, including AccuWeather, which is based in Pennsylvania. To remedy this, he sponsored the National Weather Services Duties Act of 2005, which would limit the National Weather Service to providing information that the private sector can't or won't offer.

Instead of free climatological and weather data and forecasts broadcasted or online, the National Weather Service would focus on severe-weather predictions to protect the public.

Santorum has said people who use National Weather Service data won't see any changes as a result of his legislation, but critics say the vague language in his bill essentially limits the information that the government agency can provide to the public.

Critics have also said it is a ploy to protect jobs in Santorum's home state. Santorum and aides have countered that he is only reinstituting long-held policies of the National Weather Service not to compete with a booming commercial weather industry.

In a written statement, Santorum said the bill will "modernize the description of the National Weather Service's roles within the national weather enterprise, so that it reflects today's reality in which the National Weather Service and the commercial weather industry both play important parts in providing weather products and services to the nation."

Local boaters have complained about the legislation, which lacks a co-sponsor and has stalled in committee after complaints from boating and pilots associations.

Jim Luciano, a member of the Chesapeake Sailing Club, said he often uses the service on Wisp of Dawn, his Bristol 35.5 sailboat.

"My view is that the government has an interest not only in the recreational boater but also the commercial boaters in the world," he said. "Everybody gets a high level of service."

Luciano said boaters often joke that NOAA stands for "not always accurate," but that in recent years the technology has improved significantly, particularly for the three-day forecasts popular among boaters.

"NOAA has a major role to play," he said. "The population needs to be aware of weather influences and forecasts that affect everybody's daily life."

Gibson said many members of his club use information from the National Weather Service together with private-sector weather data and services.

"I would never use only the NOAA service as a guide to decision-making on the water," Gibson said. "It's best to use several sources. And NOAA serves a particularly important function for those who do day sailing and need a short-term projection as to what the weather will be like."

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