My introduction to the ring net controversy began when I attended the August 18 ring-net tutorial, called “Montecito Debris Flow Mitigation,” hosted by The Partnership for Resilient Communities, at the Montecito fire district headquarters. The proposal was incredibly focused on the need to act quickly before the upcoming rainy season, as explained by both the organizer of the event, Suzanne Elledge, a local planning and permitting consultant, and by Bill Kane, head of the engineering firm, Kane Geotech, that would install “emergency” ring nets on several Montecito creeks.
They said that due to time constraints, they were forced to bypass working with all of the usually involved regulatory agencies, and, instead, appeal directly to the Army Corps of Engineers for an emergency permit to install a series of ring nets across the five (now four) Montecito creeks.
This approach alarmed me. It was more of a well-orchestrated campaign aimed at swaying public opinion than it was an in-depth discussion with the relevant public agencies that need to be involved in projects of this magnitude.
At this program, I asked a lot of questions such as: “How is this project being funded?” (by wealthy donors). “Who is responsible if they fail?” (no answer). “How do they get installed without causing massive damage and erosion?” (by large “industrial” vehicles called “Spyders” w/ legs instead of wheels so they don’t have to bulldoze roads up each of these watersheds). “How will they survive an actual debris flow when boulders the size of small houses crash into them?” (they won’t fail). “Who will inspect, maintain, and repair them?” (no answer). “When will they be removed?” (no answer). “How will you mitigate their impact on migrating steelhead?” (no answer).
None of these questions were answered in a way that reassured me that they had a well-thought-out strategy. I was left thinking that these ring nets could actually cause far more death and destruction (for Montecitans, steelhead trout, and a variety of mammals) than if these watersheds were not modified with an unproven technology.
Other aspects of their plan, such as the weather station locations and early warning systems, had little detail, and the entire presentation (and website) seemed more like a public relations campaign, rather than a synopsis of biological, hydrological, and geomorphological information sets. One can go to the Resilient Communities website to view their plans, along with links to literature and videos about ring nets. Nowhere in this information bank will you see ring nets spanning real creeks. They are deployed above roads, bridges, infrastructure, and railroad tracks. They span steep rocky rills and gullies in order to block falling rocks, rock slides, and flash floods. They have been set up where construction equipment can clean them out. Nowhere are they shown to be used to mitigate actual debris flows.
I struggled to comprehend why they were insistent on utilizing the same technology that is used to prevent rockfall from hitting cars along the cliffs of Highway 1 to create a series of artificial dams along these four watersheds. I was troubled by the lack of specific details on how this was an appropriate technology for our situation. In addition to these concerns, I also noticed that none of the background literature and accompanying videos showed them deployed in actual riparian watershed systems with trees and fish.
Soon afterward, a cover story in the Montecito Journal explained the urgency of the situation and the need to install these nets immediately. The story was very one-sided and did not present the point of view of any of the other agencies that would be involved with this proposal.
I immediately contacted Nick Welsh at the Santa Barbara Independent and conveyed my concerns about this proposal to him, and urged him to also cover this very important story. We had a lengthy conversation in which I explained many of the shortcomings of this proposed project. Not long after that, I was contacted by Independent reporter Keith Hamm and interviewed at length before the Indy published the first of two ring net articles.
After “Ring Nets Proposed For Unstable Canyons” ran on September 6, I contacted Hamm and asked why none of the concerns of the local resource management experts and related government agencies (that I had previously conveyed to him) were included in this article. He explained that they would be in an upcoming, much more comprehensive article. I then emailed him a list of important resource managers and urged him to contact them to see what they thought. Even if he did contact any of them, he did not include any of their comments in his follow-up story.
I was profoundly disappointed when the second article was published, “Lords of the Rings,” on October 11. This cover story was very one-sided and condensed my concerns, along with Natasha Lohmus’s (an environmental scientist with California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife) into two column inches in a four-page story. Even more upsetting was the fact that the reporter then turned around and presented our comments to “The Ring Net Posse” so they could criticize them for inclusion into this article! This shoddy approach to an important news story reeks of the Fox News strategy and is far from the fair and balanced reporting I am accustomed to seeing in the Independent.
An interesting side note is that Nick Welsh and Keith Hamm were given a special, private ring-net informational meeting, similar to the one I attended. It just so happens that former Santa Barbara News-Press and onetime Independent publisher Joe Cole just so happens to be on the Resilient Communities Board of Directors. I wondered if this might have an effect on the Indy’s one-sided reporting on this important and controversial issue.
I contacted a variety of experts from UCSB, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Forest Service, S.B. County Flood Control, U.S. Geological Survey, California Coastal Commission, and National Marine Fisheries. Guess what? Not a single one of the experts I contacted was in favor of this ring-net proposal. This is quite a contrast to Keith Hamm’s assertion that more people he talked to were in favor of the proposal than against it. He wasn’t talking to the experts I talked with. He talked to the principals of the plan and their paid contractors. The experts I talked to said that in an actual debris flow, these nets would immediately fill up and become useless, unless they dam up the creek and either catastrophically fail or divert the flow out of the stream channel and cause even worse damage than if they were not deployed.
There are serious problems with the logistics and implementation of this approach to disaster mitigation. While this approach is being viewed by the various agencies I contacted as an “end run” in order to get an Army Corps of Engineers permit, they will still need permits from CDFW, NMF, and the Sate Water Board. The permit from the state requires a CEQA document, and if any of their infrastructure is to be placed on Forest Service land, they will need a NEPA document and Forest Service permits.
The creeks in question are also critical habitat for populations of the rare and endangered steelhead trout and red-legged frog. Habitat modification for these two species may also require an Environmental Impact Report. What if the principals on the Board of Directors of the Partnership for Resilient Community decide to disband? What government agency will be responsible for maintenance, repair, prompt cleaning, and eventual removal of these eyesores on our landscape? Who or what entity will be responsible and liable when these are installed on public versus private property? Another relevant question is, why did they drop Romero Canyon from their most recent revision of their plan?
This project could have dire implications for the local steelhead population; that is why we have an intensive review process conducted by multiple resource management agencies for projects that could impact our local steelhead. The window for successful spawning of steelhead is very narrow. These nets will cause damming of the creeks that will prevent their upstream migration. Cleaning them out after a big storm will be impractical and could result in heavy mortality of these fish. These issues are not taken lightly by the various agencies that will be involved, once the initial “emergency” Army Corps permit is obtained.
Another major hurdle these proponents face is that the next round of permits will have to come from agencies that have different standards for what constitutes an emergency than the Army Corps of Engineers. This issue may quickly shut down the project, before it even starts.
In addition to the steelhead issues, there can be serious consequences to the local mammal populations if these creeks are ring-netted. Large mammals such as bear, mountain lion, coyote, fox, bobcat, and deer can run into them and suffer serious injury or death. These artificial dams, when filled with rocks and sediment, would also create barriers that would interfere with the regular movements of a whole host of small mammals and reptiles. These concerns were shared with me by both a UCSB biology professor and a CDFW biologist.
A geomorphologist told me that any interference with the natural flow of rock and sediments moving down toward the beach would result in greater problems than allowing them to flow to the sea naturally. He said that any artificial damming in the local creeks would tend to create more problems than they would solve.
There are a variety of ways that these nets or similar technologies could be of benefit to us, but this application in not one of them. Installing them in a variety of experimental study areas well up and out of the creek beds could work. If they were installed on steep mountain-side rills and lower down gullies, they might prove useful. Perhaps Resilient Communities should contact Santa Barbara County Flood Control and pay forward a couple million dollars of their ring net donations to this public agency so they can research and develop better mitigation strategies for future disasters.
Editor’s Note: All news staffers attended the ring-net presentation at the Indy by Resilient Communities. Joe Cole is currently a minority shareholder of the Independent and has never influenced editorial content. The emailed public comment to the county so far is 6:1 in favor.