One County’s Controversial Move To Protect Homeowners From Landslide Risk
This is the first part of a two-part series on managing landslide risk. Read the second part of the serieshere.
GLACIER SPRINGS, Wash. — Canyon Creek comes plunging fast and steep down the Cascade Mountains near Mount Baker.
Since the March 22 Oso landslide killed 42 people, county governments in the Northwest have been thinking more about how to plan for and mitigate the risk of landslides.
There may be some lessons to be learned from Whatcom County, which bought out 31 property owners in the Glacier Springs flood zone.
Dan McShane describes his time serving on the Whatcom County Council from 2000-07 as an "out-of-body experience." A geologist by training, McShane found the political negotiations of county governance challenging. Yet he made planning for landslide risk a central issue during his time in office. He played a key role in getting the county to pony up funds to get Glacier Springs homeowners out of harm's way.
“I used terms like 'it would be immoral' [to let people keep living there] because in my mind it was," McShane said during a recent hike to see the landslide zone of Canyon Creek.
He and John Thompson, a geologist and senior planner with Whatcom County, clambered through dense, mossy forests above Canyon Creek. They dodged prickly plants and crumbling logs until they got to the edge of what's known as the Jim Creek landslide. From the exposed face of the slide, the two men looked down 500 feet or so to Canyon Creek.
"I have a comfort level that might be a little warped," McShane said, shimmying out along an exposed log to get a better view of the Jim Creek slide. The Bald Mountain slide is visible across the creek.
The Bald Mountain and Jim Creek landslides converge on Canyon Creek, blocking the stream.
During heavy rains the two separate landslides have been known to act like gates, blocking the creek from both sides.
"Kind of like pinch points," McShane explained, "because they’re both coming at each other towards the river. In a way the worst scenario would be that you have a pretty big movement on one or the other that would cause the river to be dammed."
And that’s exactly what happened here in the winter of 1989-90 (which set snowfall records, globally). The landslides blocked Canyon Creek, causing water to build up behind the debris and then burst through, sweeping away four homes in Glacier Springs, which is roughly three miles downstream from the landslide zone. No one was hurt.
This LIDAR image shows the Jim Creek and Bald Mountain landslides. The community of Glacier Springs is located in the alluvial fan of the creek, roughly three miles downstream of the landslide "pinch point." Image courtesy of Dan McShane.
He said his neighbors were lucky to realize that the river had almost stopped flowing — a key sign that things were backed up upstream and that a big flood was coming.
"…and sure enough, three to four hours later was when the deluge came through and washed everything out."
That landslide and several others that followed it got Whatcom County officials’ attention.
Whatcom County started looking at other options.
The council concluded that people shouldn’t be living in the flood zone below the landslides and that a buyout was the best way to save the county money — and potentially, to save people's lives.
Flooding, caused by landslides in Canyon Creek, swept away four homes in Glacier Springs in 1989-90. These steps are all that's left of one of the properties. Credit: Ashley Ahearn.
It paid for the buyout with money from Whatcom County, the Federal Emergency Management Administration, Washington’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board and the Whatcom Land Trust. All told, the buyout cost more than $1.6 million. Roughly 88 acres along Canyon Creek were purchased and 13 structures were removed over more than 10 years. The last buyout was finished about 18 months ago.
Some residents in the affected area opposed the approach. But most, including Benson, thought it was the right idea.
"Moving the homes and protecting people and property where they could, in general I think it was well accepted and the vast majority of owners sold their lots," he said.
"This isn’t property rights anymore. This is about life and death," McShane said. "When you get to that level I think people react much differently."
The fatal Oso landslide in Washington's Snohomish County has given additional weight to conversations about property rights versus government authority.
For some people, owning land is an exercise in personal freedom — people feel they have the right to do whatever they want with their property, even if it’s in a dangerous area. The question is who is responsible when disaster strikes?
Ken Mann, who currently serves on the Whatcom County Council, says if he’d been in office at the time of the buyout decision he would have voted against it.
“It’s not for me to give out charity on behalf of the people of Whatcom County," Mann said in a recent interview. "We should not be in the business of fool-proofing and disaster-proofing the world. Let people have their freedom, do what they want on their property and give them the responsibility to deal with the consequences.”
Mann believes people need to do their homework before they buy. But he says government should "be in the business of sharing information" and should inform buyers about the potential risks associated with their property.
The technology is there, but it’s expensive, and most counties are just beginning to incorporate it. Right now, only 22 percent of Washington state has been mapped using LIDAR technology. LIDAR imagery cuts through the tree layer to show where old landslides have occurred. Members of Washington's congressional delegation are urging fellow lawmakers to better fund landslide-hazard mapping.
It’s impossible to know how all the residents of Steelhead Drive in Oso would have responded had they had more information about their landslide risk or been given the option to take a buyout.
In Whatcom County, the buyout wasn’t a quick or easy process, but now there are 31 fewer households in harm’s way.
There's more in our series on managing landslide risk.
Wednesday: One County’s Controversial Move To Protect Homeowners From Landslide Risk