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Natural Hazards Planning Expertise and Resources for Local Governments

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
  • Earthquakes
  • Seismic scenario catalog
  • National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) site class and liquefaction susceptibility
  • Seismic design categories
  • Hazardous minerals
  • Lahar hazards
  • Landslides
  • 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:

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:

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.

Photo of Tricia Sears

About Tricia Sears

Tricia R. Sears is the Geologic Planning Liaison with the Washington Geological Survey (WGS), a position she has held since January 2022. WGS established this position to more effectively connect science at WGS with other state agencies, local jurisdictions, and tribes.

Previously, Tricia worked as a Natural Hazards Planner with the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development where her primary responsibility was assisting local jurisdictions with natural hazards mitigation planning. She has also worked for the City of Portland, Multnomah County, and the City of Beaverton.

Tricia holds a Masters in Environmental Management from Portland State University and a Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies from the University of Kansas, and she earned a post graduate certificate in geologic risks from the University of Geneva.

Tricia is writing as a guest author.The views expressed in guest columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.

Photo of Greg Wessel

About Greg Wessel

Gregory R. Wessel, PhD, LG holds degrees in Geology from Colorado School of Mines (PhD) and the Missouri University of Science and Technology(BSc and MSc). He is licensed in Washington as an Engineering Geologist and has over 35 years of experience in metals and industrial minerals exploration, geologic hazard abatement and environmental restoration, geotechnical applications and mapping of geologic hazards, the development of agricultural minerals (sulfur and potash) and the recovery of magnesium salts. He specializes in geologic mapping and structural evaluations, and has mapped large areas using aerial photography and extensive field work.

Dr. Wessel has authored or co-authored over 20 articles and abstracts. He also serves on the Mapping Advisory Committee for the Washington Geological Survey.

Dr. Wessel is writing as a guest author. The views expressed in guest columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.