More money urged for U.S. landslide mapping

OSO — The federal program tasked with keeping people safe from landslides has a staff of 20 — for the entire country.

U.S. House members who represent parts of Snohomish County want that to change. They’re urging colleagues to free up more federal dollars for landslide research following the March 22 Oso disaster that claimed at least 41 lives.

U.S. Reps. Suzan DelBene, Rick Larsen and Jim McDermott on Thursday sent a letter to key colleagues asking them to nearly triple the budget for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Landslide Hazards Program. That would boost funding to $10 million, from about $3.5 million now.

“It is the smallest and least-funded of all of the natural hazards programs within the U.S. Geological Survey,” DelBene said. “Ten million dollars may not be enough, but it’s definitely a start.”

The same letter seeks to boost federal support for mapping using technology known as Light Distance and Ranging, or LIDAR. While the USGS, in theory, has about $300 million for LIDAR surveys, in practice only about 10 percent of it gets spent.

“Experts from around the country agree that it’s the best available technology to map landslide hazards,” DelBene said.

The congressional letter says only 22 percent of Washington has been mapped with the technology.

A House subcommittee could take up the funding issues as soon as next week.

The Oso landslide factored into a confirmation hearing last week for President Barack Obama’s choice to head the USGS.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., questioned the nominee, acting USGS director Suzette Kimball, on her commitment to mapping landslide dangers.

“Not enough is being done,” Cantwell said. “This LIDAR — Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging — is really essential.”

The USGS a decade ago proposed a national program to reduce landslide dangers, but it was never funded, according to Cantwell’s office. Instead, the work has fallen to state and local governments.

Kimball assured Cantwell that, if confirmed, she would increase the use of LIDAR mapping and support a more robust national landslide strategy.

Snohomish County Council Chairman Dave Somers believes that supplying USGS scientists with more resources will trickle down to the local level and the public. How to better inform people about landslide risks is one of the policy issues Somers and his colleagues have discussed in recent meetings.

In particular, LIDAR images could help the county produce more sophisticated maps to gauge geological risks, he said. The county’s existing landslide-hazard maps, based on slopes, are crude by comparison.

“It would be a great benefit to us,” Somers said. “We do not have complete coverage of hazard maps that are based on the most recent technology.”

The Oso slide wiped out the Steelhead Haven neighborhood and spread 10 million cubic yards of dirt and trees over about a square mile.

Geologists who had studied the 600-foot-high hillside beforehand had warned of further slides. However, they predicted something on the scale of slides in 2006 and 1967 that blocked the North Fork Stillaguamish River but caused no injuries or deaths.

With available data, geologists have said it would have been nearly impossible to predict the magnitude of the mudslide earlier this year.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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