Six of seven homes on Randall Road along San Ysidro Creek were destroyed when a catastrophic debris flow engulfed entire neighborhoods on January 9, 2018 | Credit: Credit: Courtesy Ventura County Sheriff's Air Unit

It’s the holy grail of flood control. That’s what 1st District Supervisor Das Williams called Montecito’s first post-fire debris basin to be approved since 1971 when the Romero basin was built after that 16,000-acre fire. This one, to go in at Randall Road along San Ysidro Creek, will spread across eight acres and protect downstream homes and properties from the brutal assault of boulders and mud when fire and rain again send them down Montecito’s creeks.

Montecito lost 23 residents in 2018 when a freak cloudburst fell on the heels of the Thomas Fire — which consumed 281,000 acres — and caused massive debris flows to roll from the badly burned hillsides, overflowing all the existing debris basins. On Randall Road, two people lost their lives, and seven parcels were almost entirely buried in mud.

Map showing existing debris basin at top, new basin location at center, and Ennisbrook alternative at bottom.

With the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors’ unanimous approval of the project’s final Environmental Impact Report on Tuesday, proponents are one step closer to the biggest dig on the South Coast since the Santa Monica Debris Basin was installed above Carpinteria in 1977. It took more than the obvious benefits to sanction the new debris basin — capturing peak storm flows before they do damage and holding more water to infiltrate into the ground. It took the collective energy of a lot of people to get this far, and many attribute the success to Curtis Skene, who has lived across the road from Randall since he was a boy.

In 1969, Skene stood at his home’s plate-glass window, holding his father’s hand as they watched three feet of mud lap against the four feet of sandbags they’d circled around their house. “It scared the living daylights out of my father and myself,” he remembered. In 2018, he sat for hours in the cold behind the same house, knowing he’d cheated death. “I was almost a statistic,” he said. “I should never have been in the house.” This time the mud rose to 16 feet and swept his home away.

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Everyone was in shock for months, but Skene decided something had to be done. He asked his fiancée, the architect Kris Kirkelie, to collect maps of the area. He talked with his neighbors on Randall Road, most of whom told him they didn’t want to come back. He checked with County Public Works, who agreed that Randall Road would be ideal for a debris basin. “The perfect grade is 6 percent,” Skene said. “Randall Road is about 6.2 percent.”

In addition to starting a nonprofit, Partners in Community Renewal, or RenewSB for short, to help raise funds for the project, Skene, who is an investment banker, began sketching out the case for the debris basin to catch the attention of grants and donations. “For two, two and a half weeks, the mud on the 101 blocked the second biggest artery in California,” Skene said. “The economic impact to the State of California cannot be ignored.”

Project location map | Credit: Santa Barbara County Flood Control District

The agreed-upon basin sits on 9.2 acres of 10 parcels along Randall and East Valley Roads. The county already owns one parcel in the creek, it purchased another for $4 million in May 2019, the skinny parcel on the east side requires county easements, and the other seven are largely fields of mud and invasive plants still in private hands.

San Ysidro Creek lies in the western edge of the basin, and its banks will be eased to a less-steep angle to hold the anticipated five-year flow of storm waters and also to let plants for habitat and shade take root. The debris basin above the creek banks will be scraped out mostly to the west, five feet deep at its northern end and descending to about 20 feet deep at the southern end, along about two-tenths of a mile of the creek. A smaller portion will also lie to the east of the creek. Once dug, the basin will be 3.2 acres at bottom and eight acres at its top, with the basin and creek banks to be replanted with riparian and other native trees and shrubs.

One of the other advantages of the Randall Road location, compared to the debris-basin alternatives researched in the final EIR, was that the site was already degraded — full of dried mud and partially denuded of trees and vegetation. One potential site, about a mile downstream near Ennisbrook, was a nature preserve full of mature plantings. Another alternative was to increase the height of the creek’s existing debris dam about a half mile upstream, which would add to its current 11,000-cubic-yard capacity but leave it smaller than the proposed plan because of its narrow canyon walls and nearby private residential properties. Once completed, the holding capacity of the new basin will be larger than 97,000 cubic yards, which is the amount of soil and rock that will be removed to create it.

The project has its drawbacks, Montecitans have pointed out. The Montecito Association issued a long letter asking about truck travel, rush hours, road deterioration, and the ugly view of the denuded basin from East Valley Road. Other residents asked about landscape restoration, oak trees, the noise of rock crushing and blasting, and where all the dirt would go.

In response, the county said the roughly 15,000 truck trips over 150 workdays would take Sheffield Road to the highway, but alternately would use Hot Springs or San Ysidro roads if intersection usage became too high or unrelated roadwork interfered with truck travel. Caltrans was in charge of the road surface, but the worksite would be screened from view, and for noise, until trees and shrubs could be established on the berm to run along East Valley Road. To lessen the neighborhood annoyance, work hours were limited to Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.-4:30 p.m., and water would be sprinkled to keep the dust down.

Some of the dirt would be used on-site or could go to nearby construction sites that requested it, but none of it will go to the beaches in Carpinteria or Goleta beach. “We have zero plans to go to the beaches,” said Maureen Spencer with County Public Works. “Goleta Beach and Carpinteria have been used only on an emergency basis. This is a routine job, and where the dirt goes all depends on which contractor gets the bid.”

Forty-nine trees now growing in the basin will be removed, including 30 coast live oaks, 17 California sycamores, and two California bay trees. The EIR calls for replanting three trees for every one removed. The tops and slopes of the basin and creek will also be planted with trees and shrubs that suit the riparian area. As the years pass, the basin and creek would be cleared periodically and monitored for invasive species; trees that grow back would remain if they don’t impede operations.

Artist rendering of yet-to-be-built San Ysidro Creek debris basin (left) and after vegetation has grown in (right). East Valley Road runs along the bottom of the drawing. Credit: Santa Barbara County Flood Control District

Two ramps will run down to the basin for maintenance off Randall Road, and one ramp from East Valley Road. When not otherwise in use, the road will have a gate to admit walkers, and a small lot for three cars will sit at the entrance.

According to Skene, the project still has hoops to satisfy with several federal agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers, National Marine Fisheries Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife. California wildlife and water quality agencies are also to be consulted, work that is ongoing now, said Public Works’ Maureen Spencer. Public Works has been working closely with FEMA on the roughly $25 million project, which costs are to be split 75/25 between the federal and local governments. And the Randall Road property owners are still engaged in the process, said Skene.

If all goes as planned, both Skene and Spencer said, the work would commence about a year from now.

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