Lidar imagery enables geologists to accurately identify landslides, such as the area around the Highway 530 Oso landslide. In this area, lidar data show prehistoric landslides in beige along the North Fork Stillaguamish River. The darker-shaded outlined area is the extent of the March 2014 Oso landslide. (Daniel Coe / Washington State Department of Natural Resources)

Lidar imagery enables geologists to accurately identify landslides, such as the area around the Highway 530 Oso landslide. In this area, lidar data show prehistoric landslides in beige along the North Fork Stillaguamish River. The darker-shaded outlined area is the extent of the March 2014 Oso landslide. (Daniel Coe / Washington State Department of Natural Resources)

Congress considers new program to pinpoint landslide risks

Rep. DelBene hopes 3-D maps will allow scientists to identify the next disaster before it happens.

OSO — Federal lawmakers are making another push to create a national program to identify landslide risks, to help anticipate disasters like the deadly Oso mudslide that struck nearly five years ago.

If passed, the National Landslide Preparedness Act would create an inventory of 3-D maps that anyone could look up. A bill introduced Thursday makes minor updates to a similar proposal from two years ago that failed to come up for a full U.S. House vote.

U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, sponsored the bill. DelBene said the information could help experts home in on areas that pose the greatest risks, like the massive slide that claimed 43 lives near Oso, which is in her congressional district.

“Our region has obviously been hit incredibly hard and we want to do everything possible to make sure Oso doesn’t happen again,” she said. “I think this will be a very important step. I’m hopeful we’ll get it through.”

The congresswoman believes the federal program would complement efforts by Washington’s Department of Natural Resources and counterpart agencies in other states.

DNR has made progress mapping and analyzing data about the glacially formed landscape in the upper half of the state, including Snohomish County. The agency has requested more money from the Legislature for the coming years. The work relies heavily on aerial maps created through laser-surveying technology known as lidar.

The federal law would direct the U.S. Geological Survey to create a National Landslide Hazards Reduction Program. Goals would include setting research priorities, coordinating work among agencies and developing a national landslide database. Not only would the database be used to gauge risks, but also impacts on health, the economy and the environment. Beyond public safety, the information could prove valuable for managing agriculture and natural resources, transportation and other infrastructure.

“The work that’s happening at the local level and the federal level could be readily combined and we would have that information available for people to see,” DelBene said.

To date, high-resolution elevation data has been collected for about a quarter of the United States, according to a news release from DelBene’s office. Much of the country relies on data collected more than 30 years ago using older techniques. An ongoing federal-state partnership in Alaska has collected high-resolution imagery for about three-quarters of that state, and some lawmakers see it as an example for the rest of the country.

The act would provide an initial $37 million in funding each fiscal year. The bulk of the money — $25 million — would go to the U.S. Geological Survey. Another $11 million would go to the National Science Foundation. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also would receive $1 million to work on an early warning system for post-wildfire debris flows.

That’s not an awful lot when considering the money would be spread across 50 states, plus territories and tribal land.

“This is starting that process,” DelBene said. “Part of the importance of the bill is to get the program established so we have people and resources focused on this. It will also advise us going forward about what resources will be necessary to help expand their work.”

A companion bill was introduced in the Senate by DelBene’s fellow Washingtonian, Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell. A bipartisan group of co-sponsors comes from across the West: Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Ron Wyden, D-Oregon; and Cory Gardner, R-Colorado.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet. com. Twitter: NWhaglund.

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