Monday, January 25, 2016

Whatcom County and Lahar Struggles

Whatcom County is in the midst of updating its Comprehensive Plan. Comprehensive plans are wide ranging documents that set broad planning policies around future development and natural resources and facilities planning. They also establish policy guidance for geologic hazards.

A public hearing on the updating of the Comprehensive Plan will take place Tuesday January 26 before the County Council. I suspect there will be lots of public comment on population growth projections, protection of habitat and likely some direct and indirect stuff on coal and oil terminals. Geology hazards - I will weigh in on lahar hazards.

The Planning Commission, an advisory body, has forwarded their version of the plan to the council. That plan includes a significant change in lahar hazard policy. The policy change would set up establishment of removing all limits on development within potential lahar hazard areas. The change was instigated by comments to the Planning Commission by the Building Industry Association of Whatcom County. The comments unfortunately reflect a poor understanding of lahar risk and consequences.

Thus far I sent the County Council this email:

The language adopted by the Planning Commission would be a major policy shift. I have not seen the original language suggested by staff but note that they took a different view per the draft I saw that came out of the Planning Commission. The policy shift would require a substantial change to the critical areas section on lahars. It also may impact how planning in the potential lahar areas may move forward in the future.   

The Planning Commission approach will mean no development restrictions in lahar areas. The way the PC has written this also could allow zoning changes within lahar areas that could intensify development within know lahar risk areas. 
My own view is that there should be limits on development in the lahar areas, but some easing of the rules can and probably should be done regarding some levels of commercial developments. I believe that Planning is working towards addressing that issue by setting an upper limit of some sort. The other issue is for residential development, the current regulation directs the review of residential development to a general part of the code that may be best to drop as it really is not applicable or requires unnecessary review of the obvious - I think that is being addressed as well. 
One other area of possible discussion could revolve around distance along the lahar routes. The longer the distance the lower the potential risk or the more likely that some actions will be taken to address the sediment associated with the lahar/mud flows. A lahar will cause all sorts of problems all along the Nooksack in terms of flooding. Lahars to the east off of Baker will cause all sorts of trouble on the Baker River, PSE's hydro projects and Skagit County.  However, dredging of the river to maintain the river course may be a viable solution. This is exactly what took place along the Cowlitz River at I-5 and within the Longview/Kelso area post Mount Saint Helens eruption. The other aspect of distance is that there is more time and warning for escape.  But for areas close to the volcano, the scale of the event and the area immediately impacted can be really horrible. The terrible example being Nevado del Ruiz in Columbia where approximately 27,000 people died in a lahar event. We are somewhat fortunate that thus far we do not have a substantial population or development within areas of potential lahar. While we can say these events may be viewed as rare, they are inevitable and absolutely will happen. Essentially all of the Cascade volcanoes have had large lahars in the past on multiple occasions.   

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