Natural Hazards Planning Expertise and Resources for Local Governments
Here in Washington State, our spectacular geology also gives rise to spectacular natural hazards, including volcanoes, earthquakes, landslides, floods, and tsunamis — all of which threaten lives and property. Recent events, such as the Nooksack River floods in November 2021, and others across the nation continue to provide dramatic reminders of the natural hazards that impact society.
Most of the burden for dealing with potential impacts from natural hazards falls to local jurisdictions because cities, towns, and counties focus on health, safety, and welfare at the local level, and regulate development and land use. Mapping has been the primary tool to help local jurisdictions identify potential hazard areas. However, local jurisdictions may not have the necessary expertise and resources to use these maps to fully reduce risk and mitigate impacts.
Fortunately, there are existing federal and state agencies, nonprofits, and other organizations that can provide guidance, assistance, and expertise to local jurisdictions, and much of it is offered at low cost or no cost. This blog will describe some of the resources available in Washington State, and we encourage you to reach out to these organizations with questions.
Sources of Information from Washington State
State agencies are excellent sources of data on natural hazards. However, due to the number of agencies, it can be confusing for local jurisdictions to find the information they need. A great “one stop shop” is the Washington Geological Survey (WGS), which develops and publishes information about geologic hazards, including a large variety of maps and reports.
Specifically, the WGS Geologic Hazard Maps webpage provides links to downloadable hazard maps and reports. Information on the topics listed below can also be found on the WGS Publications and Maps webpage, through the Washington Geology Library, or on the Washington Geologic Information Portal:
- Tsunami evacuation
- Tsunami inundation
- Active faults and folds
- Seismic scenario catalog
- National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) site class and liquefaction susceptibility
- Seismic design categories
- Hazardous minerals
- Lahar hazards
- Inactive and abandoned mines
WGS believes a multidisciplinary approach that combines science and policy helps build resilient communities. With this in mind, WGS established a Geologic Planning Liaison position in January 2022. This position focuses on the topics of geologic hazards, mineral resources, and climate resilience, especially as they relate to the Growth Management Act (GMA). With this position, WGS outreach and communication will be more comprehensive across the state and specifically targeted to address individual jurisdictional and agency needs. The goal is to better understand decision-making, assess needs and concerns, gather feedback, establish connections, and share information.
In addition to the new liaison position, WGS contributes to GMA’s critical areas and land use planning around the following topics:
- Geologically hazardous areas (see WAC 365-190-120): Erosion, landslide hazards, seismic hazards, volcanoes, tsunamis.
- Mineral Resource Lands (see WAC 365-190-070): Sand, gravel, and metallic mineral resources.
- Best available science (see WAC 365-195): What it is and how to obtain it.
- The Climate Commitment Act
If your local government is seeking assistance in any of the areas above, reach out to WGS.
WGS also provides geologic planning support to local governments, including
- Providing the best available science for many geologic hazards;
- Discussing the appropriate uses of our data and maps;
- Assisting with communication for local outreach about WGS science;
- Providing examples of local land use codes, outreach, and examples from other jurisdictions;
- Reviewing land use codes related to geologic hazards; and
- Assisting with GMA periodic updates.
WGS is part of the Washington Department of Natural Resources. Other state agencies with scientific information, planning, and technical assistance that may be of interest to local jurisdictions include, but are not limited to the list below:
- Department of Natural Resources
- Department of Commerce
- Department of Ecology
- Department of Fish and Wildlife
- Department of Health
- Department of Emergency Management
Sources of Information from Nonprofits
In addition to the state, there are also nonprofits with resources on the effects of climate change, including drought and wildfire risk. One example is Geology in the Public Interest, a 501c3 headquartered on Vashon Island, which has expertise in landslide hazard mapping and other geologic hazards. If your jurisdiction needs assistance in these areas, reach out to Geology in the Public Interest.
Things to Remember
Using best available science for local decision-making around geologic hazards and land use planning involves, but is not limited to, obtaining and using data and maps from multiple sources. State and federal agencies, as well as nonprofits, can provide resources and technical assistance.
The diagram below illustrates the intersection of the hazard, vulnerability, and value as risk. Local jurisdictions can use available expertise and resources to reduce risk and mitigate hazard impacts to their communities.
You may also find great examples of local jurisdiction information by checking with other local government staff. It’s okay if you don’t have the answer; just reach out with your questions to those who do.
Strong land use codes, comprehensive plans, building codes, and other implementation provisions and strategies, as well as robust policies and programs, are your best approach to protecting life and property.
Related MRSC Resources
MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.