A Los Angeles Times exposé published December 20, 2018, found that Santa Barbara officials had known for decades that the county’s system of debris basins in the mountains above Montecito would be unable to protect the community from the heavy debris flows the Santa Ynez Mountains were prone to produce. The article, written by Times features reporter Joe Mozingo, also found that at the time of the 1/9 Debris Flow, the carrying capacity of the basins had been dramatically reduced with silt and sediment from years of limited maintenance, leaving less room to hold back the debris.
Mozingo, citing public records, historical documents, and aerial photographs, discovered that as far back as the late 1960s, Army Corps and Santa Barbara authorities were worried the catchments, built in a hurry after the 1964 Coyote Fire, were too few and too small to provide a long-term defense. But, according to an interview with former flood control director Jim Stubchaer, the county lacked the funding and public support to expand the system. Their worst fears were realized when the 1969 debris flow destroyed 70 homes along Romero and San Ysidro creeks, but even that wasn’t enough to galvanize an effort to build bigger, deeper basins.
Stubchaer told Mozingo that with an inadequate budget, his department struggled to keep the catchments cleaned out. He recalled workers would simply shovel sediment to the side to allow the creek water to flow through the dams. Mozingo found that just six months before the 1/9 disaster, 11 catchments were packed with river cobble and coarse sand and had only 44 percent of their original design capacity. He calculated the figure from a 2017 county report on the state of its flood control system, which mirrored the results of surveys recorded in the days leading up to the disaster.
Anticipating a potential debris flow after the Thomas Fire had denuded the mountains, county officials scrambled to clear the basins of dirt, rocks, and vegetation. Dump trucks hauled away more than 1,200 loads to an old landfill on Foothill Road, and Public Works Deputy Director Tom Fayram publicly declared that all 11 catchments had been “cleaned out.” But shortly thereafter, according to records Mozingo obtained through a Public Records Act request, County Surveyor Scott Brichan calculated that of Montecito’s three main basins, Romero Canyon’s had a capacity of 7,821 cubic yards, compared to a design capacity of 27,000. San Ysidro’s basin had a volume of 6,112 cubic yards, compared to its design of 11,000. The storm blew in before Brichan could survey the Cold Springs Creek catchment.
In an interview with Mozingo, Fayram insisted Montecito’s basins had been emptied to their full original capacity and that Brichan’s numbers were incorrect. He did not respond to questions about why Brichan’s figures, as well as those in the 2017 report, would have been wrong, and he stopped answering all questions at the advice of county attorneys. Brichan declined to comment.
County officials have since slammed the Times report as “inaccurate,” insisting in an unsigned prepared statement that “All 11 basins in question were cleared of debris and silt consistent with our basin maintenance plan.” Fayram appeared in a YouTube video standing next to one of the basins and said, “I want to assure all of you that each of these basins were completely cleaned out prior to the 1/9 Debris Flow.” None of the county’s statements, however, addressed its own report and surveys that showed otherwise. Debris flow experts consulted by the Times said the records clearly indicate the catchments had filled up with sediment during previous storms and had not been fully excavated. Citing the holiday break, county officials did not provide answers to questions posed by the Independent by press time.