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Uncle Sam as weatherman

That rain falling on the National Weather Service these days isn't entirely atmospheric. It is in part political - which explains why so many weather service employees around the US are calling press conferences to decry plans by the Reagan administration eventually to slam the doors shut on scores of regional offices and observation sites and turn many of the agency's functions over to private forecasting firms.

Meanwhile, guess who is caught in the middle of the squall now developing between the administration and weather service employees? The general public, which depends on the service not just for general forecasting but for specific reports on crops, coastal shipping, offshore oil and natural gas exploration, and hurricane locations.

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Congress and the American people should look on any plan to reduce the role of the weather service with a very cautious eye. That is not to say that the weather service could not be made leaner or more efficient. This is always desirable in any enterprise. But making management more efficient is quite different from closing down management - and that is the not inconsiderable danger in ''commercializing'' current weather bureau functions.

Although the administration contends that it has not yet made any specific decisions about divesting the government of national weather service functions - pending a $235,000 study to be finished this June by Booz, Allen, & Hamilton, a management firm - it is clear that the White House is ideologically committed to turning federal weather functions over to private firms. The White House proposal to sell off the government's weather satellites is only part of this longer-range thrust. And, like many federal agencies, the weather service has already had its budget slashed.

Just how far should the US go in pruning back what is perhaps the finest national weather agency operating in any industrialized nation? Would private firms be more thorough in compiling forecasts than would, say, national forecasters - or do so at lower cost?

If such functions were turned over to private firms, what type of regulatory controls would have to be imposed on the forecasters to assure that all available weather information was released to the public at an affordable price and no one would be caught without adequate weather information?

One top administration-appointed weather service official asks why taxpayers should bear the costs of providing specialized information to such ''users'' as airline operators, fruit growers, maritime shipping firms, etc. Yet it is the general public that rides in commercial airplanes. It is the public that would have to pay higher food costs if crops were wiped out in a sudden freeze. It is the public that relies on coastal and international maritime commerce - and in fact sends many of its relatives to sea to man the ships.

Plans to scuttle any part of the National Weather Service should be given the most careful scrutiny by lawmakers.

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