Legislation to establish a National Landslide Hazards Reduction Program in the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to better identify and understand landslide risks, protect communities, save lives and property, and improve emergency preparedness became Public Law 116-323 when the President of the United States signed H.R. 8810, the National Landslide Preparedness Act, on Jan. 5.

Included in the new law is an authorization that codifies the USGS 3D Elevation Program (3DEP), to update and coordinate the collection of elevation data across the country using enhanced, high-resolution surveys, primarily through the collection of LiDAR. Enhanced elevation data helps communities plan for and respond to natural hazards and provides critical data to inform decision-making for public safety, national security, infrastructure, transportation, agriculture, and natural resource management. Also included is an authorization for a USGS program to collect national subsidence or land-level change phenomena.

3DEP data for more than two-thirds of the United States is free and available in the public domain from USGS. Land surveyors use the data for flood mapping, infrastructure projects and scores of other applications. USGS is developing a National Land Level Change map to identify areas of the Nation prone to subsidence, using advanced radar imaging that will provide an unprecedented, detailed view of Earth from the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar, or NISAR satellite, to produce a small scale, national map. This will assist surveyors with the task of collecting land level change data on a larger scale, with more accurate measurements for application to specific projects, such as roads, pipelines, waterways, flood control. 

Under the leadership of John “JB” Byrd, a group of supporting organizations for the U.S. Geological Survey’s 3D Elevation Program (3DEP), known as the 3DEP Coalition, worked to secure the bill’s passage. On behalf of clients — including the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS), U.S. Geospatial Executives Organization (U.S. GEO), and Geospatial Equipment & Technology Institute (GETI) — combined with several members of the USGS Coalition, Byrd coordinated the lobbying efforts.

“The surveying, mapping, and geospatial profession already contributes greatly to 3DEP, and will have an increased role in providing data on subsidence,” says Byrd.

The Senate bill was introduced and championed by U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), along with Sens. Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Cory Gardner (R-CO), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). The original companion bill in the House was introduced by Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-WA). A landslide in Oso, Washington, in 2014, killing 43 and destroying 49 homes and other structures prompted the bill’s introduction and a recent landslide in Haines, Alaska, played a large role in pushing the legislation’s passage.

“The Oso landslide demonstrated firsthand the value that quick access to high-quality topographical data can bring in these disasters. Within 24 hours of the Oso landslide, Quantum Spatial captured LiDAR images of the massive debris field. Fortunately, six months before the landslide, we had collected LiDAR data in that same area on behalf of the Puget Sound LiDAR Consortium. Together, with the new LiDAR images collected immediately after the slide, our data provided critical information for first responders, revealing with stunning clarity the extent of the disaster. The data we collected, including a survey done a few months after the landslide to evaluate the area for further changes, was then used by a wide variety of stakeholders and decision makers, including the Washington Department of Transportation, Snohomish County, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to plan for debris cleanup, as well as understand and identify future risk,” according to Kurt Allen, PLS, vice president of NV5 Geospatial, a USGS 3DEP contractor.

“Six years after the Oso landslide, everyone in the State of Washington remembers the devastating impacts landslides can have,” Senator Cantwell said. “This bill would dramatically increase our use of LIDAR data needed to map, identify, and track landslide risk areas. Employing our best science and mapping technologies will help communities across our state save lives, safeguard property, and improve our emergency planning and response.”

“Washington state knows too well the devastating impact landslides and natural disasters can have in the blink of an eye. We must do all that we can to safeguard our communities and honor those that we lost. The National Landslide Preparedness Act will help us better prepare for and mitigate future events by collecting invaluable data that will protect lives and property,” commented Representative DelBene. “The next natural disaster should not become our next national tragedy.”