Politics Blog

Geologist: Whatcom parcel map 'about worst in state'

Whatcom County Council members confronted the Oso disaster by taking an accounting of what areas of the county are threatened by dangerous landslides. Council on April 22 heard from its own public works geologists and Dan McShane, a former council member who now works as an independent geologist.

Many of the points McShane and staff made were covered in The Bellingham Herald in an article by your politics bloggers that ran on March 25, three days after the 700-foot-high hill across the Stillaguamish River from Steelhead Drive in Oso wiped out the whole neighborhood. Forty-one people were confirmed dead, and two were still missing as of Monday, April 28.

Given that much of the material is already covered in our March 25 story, I want to take this opportunity to touch on new points and elaborate on some of the old ones:

1) McShane gave some constructive but withering criticism of the county website. Citizens who want to assess landslide or other geologic risks on their own properties would find it difficult, he said.

"Whatcom County's parcel search map is about the worst in the state," said McShane, whose profession has him working directly with many counties in Washington. "I would really encourage you to get this kind of (landslide risk) information out there, and I think it would have helped in Snohomish County as well."

Council member Rud Browne proposed that council invite public works to come up with suggestions of the best available technology "to support an informed citizenry, so they can go on and look at things like geological hazards and flood zones." There was no immediate word on whether that presentation to council had been scheduled. (Keep an eye out for the new council agenda, which should be up on Wednesday, April 30.)

I emailed Jack Louws to find out what the administration will do to address the problem McShane brought up. If I hear back, I will update this post with his response.

2) Jones Creek is a disaster waiting to happen. County Public Works is closely monitoring a 300-to-400-foot-long active landslide above the creek. It has dammed a stream and formed a pond on the hillside, which is especially concerning to officials.

"Every time you go there, it looks entirely different almost," said Paula Cooper, county river and flood engineering manager.

Jones Creek meets the south fork Nooksack River just north of Acme Elementary School. Some 200 to 250 residents live on the creek's alluvial fan, John Thompson of Public Works said.

Cooper said the county has a conceptual design for a deflection berm.

"It's a problem we're trying to keep at the top of our list," Cooper said, so they can get to it "before nature takes its course."

3) Public Works staff is busy with Year 2 of a two-year project to reduce flood risk and improve salmon habitat at Canyon Creek, which also has an alluvial fan with residences on top of it -- the Glacier Springs subdivision. After that is completed, Cooper said, it might be best if the county directed its attention to Glacier.

The last community on Mount Baker Highway before you get to the mountain itself has an unknown potential for disaster that would dwarf Oso.

The town of 211 residents (2010 census) was built on the rubble of a massive, ancient landslide. The rockfall off Church Mountain, which may have come down about 3,000 years ago, traveled more than five miles, from the Nooksack north fork valley to Canyon Creek.

A similar slide today would bury the community of Glacier under 150 feet of rock, county Special Projects Manager Roland Middleton said.

While Church Mountain is not nearly on the hair trigger the hills across the river from Oso were, history says a similar slide could happen again, geologists said.

As McShane was wont to say, bluntly, "Mountains do fall down."

Geologists usually shy away from specifics such as "when?" or "how likely?" The type of investigations they do -- trying to uncover the warp and woof of layers of rock, and the history of how they moved in the long-ago past -- are anything but straightforward.

"There's a lot we don't know as geologists," McShane said.

That holds especially true for Church Mountain, Middleton said.

"The one area that I'm very concerned about is Church Mountain, and have been for some time, because we know the least about that," Middleton said.

It's incumbent on not just the county but the state and federal governments, too, Middleton said, to gather more geological information about Church Mountain and the threat to Glacier.

Council member Pete Kremen was attuned to the importance of this effort. He heard Thompson during the presentation last week, when he said, "There's a good correlation of slides like this to earthquakes as a trigger."

Adding earthquakes to the picture "accentuates the enormity and the eventual likelihood that there are going to be major events in Whatcom County," Kremen said. "It's not if, it's when."

The discussion happened to be taking place on the same day President Barack Obama visited Oso. Kremen said Public Works staff should "strike while the iron is hot" and ask for federal funding for landslide risk-prevention projects.

"There's an awareness now of what can actually happen," Kremen said.