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Bill Macfadyen: Noozhawk Weathers the Storms with a Record Week of Traffic

NoozWeek’s Top 5 goes all in on rainy-day stories, from El Capitan Canyon flooding to a dam spill and storm updates — all while Paula Lopez sinks to second best

El Capitan Canyon Resort on the move — and not in a good way. Click to view larger
El Capitan Canyon Resort on the move — and not in a good way. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

Newcomers to Santa Barbara County, as well as family and friends in parts of the country with actual weather, often make light of our overwrought anticipation and description of local storms — or “storms” to use their air quotes. Seems it never rains in Southern California and all that.

After five-plus years of extreme statewide drought conditions, and empty forecasts of wet El Niño and/or La Niña conditions, many of us were starting to believe it ourselves.

And then last week happened. Turns out it pours. Man, it pours!

January has had more than its fair share of rain, and the recent back-to-back-to-back storms at last sent significant runoff heading to regional reservoirs — specifically, Lake Cachuma, which has been on life support for months.

We’ve still got a long way to go. Cachuma remains more than 90 feet below capacity so we only need something like 17 more months just like this one to get us over the Bradbury Dam hump.

In the meantime, you’re reading a rarity: Your top five stories of the last week were all weather stories. Indeed, it’s an all weather-related Top 10. I can’t remember the last time that happened.

And if that’s not enough, it also was a record week for Noozhawk traffic, with our 177,850 readers obliterating the previous weekly high of 162,641 from the Sherpa Fire-related week of June 12, 2016. That’s according to our Google Analytics, not “alternative facts.”

But enough about numbers. Let’s wade right in to my take on the week’s Top 5:

1. No Injuries as El Capitan Canyon Cabins Washed Away By Major Flooding

With a series of powerful winter storms pounding Santa Barbara County, officials were most concerned about the stability of the three major burn areas from last year’s Canyon, Rey and Sherpa fires. They were right to be worried.

The morning of Jan. 20, a 4-inch deluge of rain sent a rampaging river of water and debris down the canyon from the Sherpa Fire zone — and right through the middle of El Capitan Canyon Resort at the bottom of the mountain.

As our Giana Magnoli first reported, five cabins were washed away and destroyed, along with 22 vehicles. Almost 30 cabins were badly damaged — many most likely a total loss — and the upscale campground’s store-restaurant reportedly was filled with mud and debris.

Several cars ended up on El Capitán State Beach, just a few yards from the surf.

Miraculously, no one was injured, although two people were rescued — a woman trapped in a van and another stuck in a moving cabin — as things started to float out of control.

“You could see the water level rising, and then all of a sudden you could see trees being ripped down and floating — like just logs and logs just floating by,” said Lia Gardner, a stunned guest from Mesa, Ariz.

Gardner and a relative, Annie Neil of San Diego, were staying at the resort as part of a large family gathering.

“The sound was unbelievable,” Neil said. “The ground was shaking ... We could see all the destroyed cabins. It was like three or five that we saw that were just washed away.”

Santa Barbara County firefighters and the county Search and Rescue Team launched a massive rescue effort, employing a dual-tracked vehicle and heavy equipment to maneuver through the mess to ferry stranded people to safety.

About midday, nearly two dozen people were escorted from the upper part of the canyon after being trapped by high water and debris.

A damage estimate for the resort had not been determined but authorities say it is expected to be considerable.

The thrill of the spill Jan. 24 at Gibraltar Reservoir. (Ryan Cullom / Noozhawk photo)
The thrill of the spill Jan. 24 at Gibraltar Reservoir. (Ryan Cullom / Noozhawk photo)

2. Gibraltar Reservoir Spills, Sending Higher Flows Into Lake Cachuma

The one-two-three punch from the past week’s series of storms finally pushed Gibraltar Reservoir over the top.

As our Tom Bolton first reported, the reservoir reached the full mark around 1 a.m. Jan. 24, and the dam began releasing water for downstream destinations, including desperately dry Lake Cachuma.

The last time Gibraltar had spilled? Six years ago, in 2011.

According to the Santa Barbara County Public Works Department, Gibraltar’s four spillways were releasing a total of about 440 cubic feet of water per second from the lake, which is on the upper Santa Ynez River about five miles north of Santa Barbara.

Obviously, that won’t continue but the release significantly improves conditions at Cachuma, which provides much of the South Coast’s water supply. By late afternoon on Jan. 24, officials said, the lake had risen to 11.6 percent full, albeit still 97 feet below its own spill level.

Tom Fayram, the county’s deputy director of the Water Resources Division, told Tom that Cachuma is expected to gain another 5 feet of water, which would grow its storage to about 27,000 acre-feet of water.

In case you were wondering, the drought is still not over.

Meanwhile, a Noozhawk shout-out goes to Mike McPhate of The New York Times for linking to Tom’s story in his California Today column on Jan. 25.

3. Bill Macfadyen: Drought May Not Be Over, But Lake Cachuma Shows Signs of Life

After all these years, we finally learned what will put Paula Lopez in her second place: Rain.

Both are long overdue.

Since I wrote it way back on May 10, 2013, my Best of Bill column recapping the then-KEYT newscaster’s ongoing absence from the anchor desk has stood as my all-time most-read column, with just shy of 10,000 readers that week. Most of my columns reporting on most of Noozhawk’s reporting on the saga have drawn heavy traffic, but you already knew that.

This past week, however, my column leading with Lake Cachuma swept away that record, following a deluge of nearly 12,000 readers.

Although I’d like to take credit, I suspect that it wasn’t my drivel driving the spike but the juxtaposition of the headlines about drought and flooding on Noozhawk’s homepage.

You’re welcome. And thank you.

Close to, but not actually the Goleta Slough. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)
Close to, but not actually the Goleta Slough. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

4. Latest Storm Causes Flooding, Mudslides in Santa Barbara County

El Capitan Canyon may have been the scene of the most drama and danger during the Jan. 20 storm, but the wallop it packed was felt from one end of Santa Barbara County to the other.

Heavy downpours kept emergency crews — and Noozhawk reporters and photographers — busy that morning. Flooding was reported all over the place as runoff overwhelmed creeks, gutters and drainage systems.

In Santa Maria, city public works employees erected a temporary “muscle wall” plastic barrier to stave off street flooding in the Hancock Park neighborhood a few blocks from Pioneer Valley High School east of Highway 101.

Mud and debris slides added to the peril, and 20 apartments were evacuated near Santa Barbara’s San Roque neighborhood after the hillside slumped behind complexes at 47 and 48 Broadmoor Plaza and on Richland Drive.

No one was injured, but the American Red Cross Pacific Coast opened a temporary shelter at San Marcos High School.

The National Weather Service reported rainfall rates of as much as an inch an hour.

Now that’s a roadblock. (Ryan Cullom / Noozhawk photo)
Now that’s a roadblock. (Ryan Cullom / Noozhawk photo)

5. Sunday Storm Not as Powerful as Expected But Still Makes Presence Felt

Weather forecasters have been on a hot streak but the Jan. 22. storm — the last in a recent series to come ashore in Santa Barbara County — didn’t quite live up to its advance billing.

National Weather Service meteorologist Carol Smith had suggested to our Tom Bolton that conditions were ripe for “one of the strongest storms we’ve had in several years.” While the county did get most of the expected 2-4 inches of rain out of it, the intensity was less than expected, which meant fewer problems.

But there were problems.

In Isla Vista, a cliff gave way below the 6600 block of Del Playa Drive, taking with it a big chunk of patio from a rental apartment complex. No one was injured in the 6 p.m. collapse west of the UC Santa Barbara campus, but around 20 tenants were displaced.

Windy conditions caused power outages and downed trees, including a good-sized eucalyptus that fell across Sycamore Canyon Road west of Cold Spring School in Montecito.

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                                                                 •        •        •

Last Year on Noozhawk

What was our most-read story this time last year? The same one as the previous week: Ex-Boyfriend Arrested in L.A. Murder of 2011 Dos Pueblos Graduate Emily Fox.

                                                                 •        •        •

Bill Macfadyen’s Story of the Week

Maybe John Podesta should read my column: 25 Passwords You Should Never Use.

                                                                 •        •        •

Watch It

Move over. This basset hound is long on determination.

(Valleybassets video)

                                                                  •        •        •

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— Bill Macfadyen is Noozhawk’s founder and publisher. Contact him at [email protected], follow him on Twitter: @noozhawk, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own. 

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