A privately funded project to install steel ring nets in five Montecito canyons is slowly moving forward as a handful of regulatory agencies consider the emergency nature of the permit application now under review by Santa Barbara County’s planning department. The Partnership for Resilient Communities, a nonprofit assembled in the wake of the deadly 1/9 Debris Flow and underwritten in part by wealthy Montecito homeowners, is aiming to install more than a dozen ring nets in Cold Spring, Hot Springs, San Ysidro, Buena Vista, and Romero canyons. In the event that rainstorms produce debris flows this winter, the nets are designed to slow mudflows laden with boulders and trees.
The Army Corps of Engineers will not require a permit for the project to move forward, according to county planners, who must also get regulatory green lights from the California Department of Fish & Wildlife and the Regional Water Quality Control Board.
While the project has received support from schools, businesses, homeowners, disaster-response agencies, and other groups — including Heal the Ocean, Citizens Planning Association, and scientists with UCSB’s Department of Earth Sciences — others remain skeptical. The Urban Creeks Council “hasn’t made an official statement,” according to board president Dan McCarter. “But my personal feeling is that the ring net [proposal] is distracting from the real safety issue. [January’s] debris flow set new high-water marks. There would be a false sense of security to put up these nets and say, ‘Okay, now it’s safe to rebuild your house along the creekbank.’” McCarter added that he appreciates the partnership being open to making adjustments, such as elevating the nets somewhat so that wildlife can migrate unobstructed along creek beds.
The partnership was also prepared to install pedestrian gates in two nets that would have crossed popular trails. That idea has been abandoned, however; the partnership plans instead to relocate those nets. In the meantime, partnership spokesperson Pat McElroy added that they continue to work with property owners and county regulators on details, including indemnity issues. To make sure the county doesn’t get stuck with cleaning out and eventually removing the nets, he said, “We’re going to have a bond to cover that. We can’t do it without one.” Earlier this week, the partnership hadn’t yet determined exactly how many millions of dollars might be needed to accomplish such heavy lifting, McElroy said. “It’s not a small number.”