Curtis Skene (left) and Kris Kirkelie founded Partners in Community Renewal to study how Montecito’s creeks and bridges can be modified to reduce the future loss of life and property in recurrent debris flows. Larry Gurrola, a Santa Barbara geomorphologist, is the project manager. | Credit: Melinda Burns

Just two years after a deadly debris flow tore through Montecito — and took 23 lives with it —  Santa Barbara County leaders and community members are picking up the pieces and building a more resilient infrastructure in case of another disaster.

The County Board of Supervisors moved ahead Tuesday with approving stages of various debris flow basin projects — the first of which being the Cold Springs Debris Basin Expansion Project. After the 1/9 Debris Flow hit in 2018, the Cold Springs basin quickly overfilled with debris, which toppled out of the basin and washed downstream. 

With the supervisors’ unanimous agreement that expanding the Cold Springs basin to the west is environmentally sound, the Public Works director will begin taking bids on the project. The timeline is scheduled for the summer to fall of this year. 

“This project will go first because it’s the easiest to deliver, and it’s on our already existing property,” said Tom Fayram, deputy public works director. “We have permits; we have the construction funding, which will be included in our budget that you’ll be considering later this year. There are no impediments.”

Fayram was joined by others who also spoke on debris basin projects at the meeting. Much of the research and background behind the projects have been done in collaboration with citizens and nonprofits. 

Curtis Skene, a Montecito resident and co-founder of Partners in Community Renewal, a nonprofit that aims to study the history of debris flows in Montecito and the area’s geology to create a master plan of recommendations for County Flood Control, spoke while standing next to Fayram.

“I’m a lucky man,” Skene said. “I got out that morning [1/9] by the skin of my teeth. Twenty-three of my community did not, including four of my nearest neighbors. When I got out that morning, I was determined that I would try to do something.

“I had no idea what that something would be, but I heard this gentleman over here, Tom Fayram, stand up at a community event. After I listened to him speak, I knew he was a man I could work with.”

Several other debris basin projects were unanimously approved for pre-construction reviews to identify potential obstacles, but the projects themselves won’t be before the board for approval until later this year. Those projects are the proposed Randall Road Debris Basin and the San Ysidro, Romero, and Cold Springs Debris Basin Modification Projects. The cost for the reviews totals $75,789.

Abe Powell, executive director of the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade, a community volunteer response to the debris flow, also chimed in on the basin projects. Powell had presented a resiliency safety plan to the supervisors earlier in the meeting. His nonprofit has partnered with the Public Works Department and the Workforce Development Board for multiple projects related to the debris flow.

“I couldn’t just sit there and watch such a great opportunity for county leaders to partner with public agencies and private citizens to make real public-private partnership,” Powell said. “Over the last 25 years in resilience building, I’ve heard it said so many times, but it meant nothing.”


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