The Partnership for Resilient Communities was formed in the wake of the 1/9 Debris Flow in Montecito that caused the deaths of 23 residents, injuries to 165 others, and a total loss or damage to 527 homes. Twenty-eight commercial buildings were damaged or destroyed. The 101 highway was closed for two weeks, disrupting the economy of the entire State of California. Property values in Montecito have taken a significant hit.
Resilient Communities is a group of local citizens who came together to research if there was anything that could be done to assist our local government in the recovery and to see what possible mitigation strategies might be available to us.
Recently, the Independent published an opinion piece by a community member that needs a response. The facts about our proposal are listed here, as well as the experts who have studied our mountains and advised on a solution that could help protect us.
We have applied for emergency permits for 15 debris nets for five Montecito canyons. Four of those canyons are in the jurisdiction of Santa Barbara County although on private lands. Those landowners have given their permission to apply for these permits. The fifth canyon, Romero Canyon, is federally owned, and we will follow the federal process for those two proposed nets.
Emergency permits are pending from Santa Barbara County and additionally the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the California Water Quality Control Board, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Army Corps has already let us know that it has no objection to our proposal.
We are approaching this as an emergency project because of the likelihood of a strong El Niño year (based on National Weather Service predictions), the lingering barren conditions of our burned mountains, and this Risk Analysis written by BGC Engineering’s Dr. Matthias Jakob, one the world’s preeminent debris flow experts:
“Urgent action is needed to protect life and property in Montecito from the future impacts of debris flows. The January 2018 debris flows did by no means ‘remove’ the hazard or return the watersheds to ‘pre-fire’ conditions. The likelihood of debris flows this winter remains high because vegetation has only tentatively begun to re-establish following the fire and the approaching season of rainfall, beginning in November, could trigger a subsequent round of debris flows from the denuded watersheds above Montecito.”
We have been consulting with the County of Santa Barbara CEO’s office, Public Works, and Flood Control since January. The U.S. Forest Service has had its district ranger, biologist, geologist, and fish biologist on site visits with our consulting biologists from Storrer Environmental Services. Storrer has reviewed each potential site with Kane GeoTech, our geotechnical engineering consultants, and has developed environmentally sensitive net locations and mitigations.
In addition, we have been in talks with representatives of the Montecito Trails Foundation for trail mitigation strategies.
The nets are specifically engineered to be site specific, are three to five feet above the creek level, and allow for mammal and fish passage. GeoBrugg, the Swiss nets manufacturer, responded to earlier comments about hazards created by the nets as follows:
“We have considered your inquiry of the potential hazard the Debris Flow net system can have to wildlife and their interactions with the system that has been raised by the Santa Barbara community. Particularly the reference to ‘gill nets for mammals’ is completely without merit [or] evidence, photographic or anecdotal, and mischaracterizes our product intentionally. This reference is defamatory in comparing our product, which serves to protect habitat, with an ocean-based system designed to kill and capture fish. We have no recorded incidents regarding animal death and injury.”
There is precedent for the debris-net solution. Forty-one GeoBrugg nets have been or currently are in use throughout the State of California. These debris nets are temporary and removable.
We, too, are residents of Santa Barbara who share strong community values about our environment. Because of this, we have consulted with experts worldwide and locally to make sure that we create a mitigation effort that is geologically, biologically, and environmentally sound and based on solid engineering.
Our advisors and supporters include Drs. Thomas Dunne and Kristin Morrell from UCSB Earth Sciences; James Lee Witt, the former head of FEMA; David Fukotomi, formerly from Cal OES and FEMA; and Admiral Thad Allen, who ran the Coast Guard response to Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon disaster. We have consulted with academic experts from UCSB Bren School, CalTrout, UC Davis, Cal Tech, and Jet Propulsion Laboratory, among many others.
Along with many individuals, we are supported by many local groups including Heal the Ocean, the Santa Barbara County Association of Fire Chiefs, the Coast Village Merchants Association, and the Montecito Association.
I believe that well-meaning people can disagree. I also am a believer in Daniel P. Moynihan’s statement that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
Information about our project is readily available at partnershipsb.org.
Pat McElroy is executive director of The Partnership for Resilient Communities.