No dissent as House backs effort to pinpoint landslide risks

Use of 3-D maps to help scientists identify disasters before they happen was a bipartisan winner.

A unanimous U.S. House of Representatives Monday embraced creating a federal program to identify areas at risk of landslides, in the hope of anticipating disasters like the deadly mudslide five years ago that claimed 43 lives near Oso.

On a voice vote, the House approved the National Landslide Preparedness Act, which would increase high-resolution mapping of geologically hazardous zones across the country and make those 3-D maps publicly available in a national database.

The act also would expand existing early warning systems of potential landslides in recently burned and flooded areas, promote improved coordination between emergency responders and assist local, state and tribal governments to assess lurking geologic dangers.

“Unfortunately this type of event is not unique to Oso, or Washington state,” said Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, the bill’s sponsor, on the House floor prior to the bill’s passage. Oso is in her congressional district.

“Every state in the country faces some amount of landslide risk, a risk that has not been well identified or addressed when compared to earthquakes, hurricanes, or floods,” DelBene said. “We need to do more to ensure that we fund programs and research efforts to prevent future natural disasters from becoming national tragedies.”

The next stop for House Bill 1261 is the Senate, where a companion bill is awaiting a floor vote.

“This is a good day,” DelBene said in an interview following the vote. “It wasn’t controversial to make sure we had a focus on landslides. Now we’ll work on getting support in the Senate and getting it on the floor.”

Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Edmonds is the prime sponsor of the Senate bill. It cleared the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on a bipartisan vote in April.

This legislation will help local communities prepare for responses to landslides and natural hazards,” Cantwell said in a statement Monday. “Our plan will help protect communities and property, save lives through early detection warning systems, improve emergency planning and response to many elements by doing science and mapping critical to understanding landslides and risks.”

When she introduced the bill, DelBene said she envisioned the federal program complementing work 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 act would authorize up to $37 million in funding in each of the next four federal fiscal years for the hazards reduction program. 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.

It also would authorize up to $40 million in each of those four years for grants and cooperative agreements “to facilitate the improvement of nationwide coverage of 3D elevation data.” Agreements could be made between the Department of Interior and other federal agencies as well as local, state or tribal governments, universities and nonprofit research institutions, according to the legislation.

Although the bill authorizes up to $77 million in spending each year, the actual appropriation would ultimately be decided during budget negotiations between the two chambers.

DelBene pushed a nearly identical bill two years ago. It had bipartisan support then too. But she served in the minority and not many Democratic bills got voted on.

In 2018, her party regained control of the chamber.

“It definitely helps to be in the majority to make sure it gets onto the floor and passed,” she said.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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