As the anniversary of the deadly Oso mudslide draws near, Washington lawmakers have an opportunity to help prevent another catastrophe.
Last March 22, a hillside in Snohomish County collapsed, sending mud and debris across the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River and engulfing a housing development. Approximately 1 square mile of land was covered by the wreckage, some of it up to 70 feet deep, and a total of 43 people were killed. While the tragedy of Oso is a clarion call for changes in how the state assesses the risk of mudslides, a bit of insight from an expert might be even more poignant.
Joe Wartman, a University of Washington geotechnical engineer, was asked recently which other areas in the state have the potential to collapse. In other words, where are the other Osos? “I still don’t have an answer for that,” Wartman told The Seattle Times. “We still don’t have a good inventory of our landslide hazards.” Therein lies the problem. The legacy of Oso — for now, at least — is 43 deaths and the revelation of a gap in what officials know and what they need to know about risky areas.
Because of that, state Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark has requested the Legislature to approve $6.6 million for the Department of Natural Resources to expand and improve its landslide inventory and to hire several new geologists. The state Senate last week unanimously passed its version of the proposal, Senate Bill 5088; the House is considering a companion measure, House Bill 1182.
The proposal would increase the mapping of geological hazards throughout the state by using LiDAR — light detection and ranging. The information that is culled would then be available to city officials, county officials, and homeowners, hopefully altering the current haphazard manner in which housing is developed with inadequate regard to landslide risks. Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, one of the co-sponsors of the House bill, told The (Longview) Daily News, “One of the things they’re trying to do is centralize a database so there is one place everyone can go. There will be a single database that people can go to and find what they need.”
The House would be wise to follow the lead of the Senate and pass the bill, and Gov. Jay Inslee would be wise to sign it into law.
Yet while the need for improved assessment and improved sharing of information might appear obvious, some people will envision some drawbacks. One of the questions is how to regulate land use in areas where landslide risk is high. Another question was illuminated in North Carolina, which launched a geological mapping program in 2004 but quickly halted the project because of concerns that risk assessment would lead to regulations that could harm property values.
Washington should not be daunted by such concerns. With a tradition of strong land-use laws, residents and lawmakers can understand and effectively weigh the options: Take all possible steps to assess landslide risk and prevent further tragedies; or ignore the risks and wait for the human and financial cost brought about by another Oso-like landslide. With a growing population leading to ever-increasing development on hillsides and other previously uninhabited areas, the risks cannot be ignored.
In addition to serving as a reminder of the power of nature, the Oso tragedy generated many questions as investigations showed that warning signs of the danger had been ignored over the course of several decades. Now, lawmakers can help prevent a repeat of the tragedy.