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Tuesday, January 15 , 2019, 5:54 pm | Light Rain Fog/Mist 53º


Metal Nets Eyed As Way to Reduce Risks of Future Montecito Debris Flows

Nonprofit Partnership for Resilient Communities has spent months pursuing project with estimated $7 million price tag and is waiting on permit decisions

Pat McElroy, former Santa Barbara City Fire Chief and now executive director of The Partnership for Resilient Communities nonprofit, points to a site on San Ysidro Creek that is proposed for installation of a metal mesh net to catch and slow debris on its way down the canyon if there are future debris flows. Click to view larger
Pat McElroy, former Santa Barbara City Fire Chief and now executive director of The Partnership for Resilient Communities nonprofit, points to a site on San Ysidro Creek that is proposed for installation of a metal mesh net to catch and slow debris on its way down the canyon if there are future debris flows. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

Almost a year has passed since walls of boulders, mud and debris roared down the steep, fire-denuded canyons above Montecito, leaving death and devastation in their paths.

Despite that passage of time, emergency management officials believe there is a significant ongoing risk of debris flows and flooding, since vegetation regrowth can take several years to stabilize the hillsides.

With the rainy season underway, the fear of another disaster seems to ride in with every storm, raising questions about what, if anything, the community can do to protect itself. 

Faced with this question, a nonprofit group called The Partnership for Resilient Communities has spent months working on a plan to install steel-mesh debris nets across five Montecito-area creeks, with the aim of catching and slowing debris on its way down the canyons if there are future flows.

The group — led by recently retired Santa Barbara Fire Chief Pat McElroy — expects decisions soon on its requests for emergency permits to begin construction.

McElroy says the vision for the nonprofit formed in the cafeteria of Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, where a group of friends often ran into each other while visiting people who were injured in the Jan. 9 debris flows.

The intense rainfall on the hillsides blackened in the December 2017 Thomas Fire caused the debris flows that killed 23 people, injured many others, damaged hundreds of homes, and buried the Montecito community in mud.

“The question is, What can we help with? Where can we be supportive and not directive?” McElroy told Noozhawk. “That was one of the things from the very beginning.”

The group raised seed money to start finding experts and to pay for research on debris flows. It consulted with former FEMA officials, engineers and other experts before settling on the debris nets as a possible solution.

Proposed development signs for the debris control nets line San Ysidro Trail in Montecito. Click to view larger
Proposed development signs for the debris control nets line San Ysidro Trail in Montecito.  (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

“In discussions with county people, they realized there was so much recovery activity happening, but nobody was really looking at preventing this from happening again,” said Alixe Mattingly, who is now a core member of the nonprofit team and a donor to the cause.

The project proposal is to install 15 debris nets across five Montecito-area creeks, a few each in Cold Spring, Hot Springs, San Ysidro, Buena Vista and Romero creeks on private land.

The nets would stay in place for five years, according to the application, until hillside vegetation recovers from the Thomas Fire and the debris flow threat diminishes.

To do that, the nonprofit needs emergency permit approvals from several government agencies and agreements with the private property owners.

The Partnership for Resilient Communities needs at least $7 million to install, maintain and remove the nets, and permitting agencies may also require performance bonding to guarantee the project goes through, in case something happened to the nonprofit entity, McElroy noted.

The proposed GeoBrugg flexible debris control nets, made by a Swiss company, would not be able to stop a debris flow, but would act as a series of brakes to stop the momentum and hopefully rob the rock and other debris of the sediment they need to move downstream, McElroy said.

“I think we’re well ahead of the curve,” McElroy said in a recent interview. “If we’re really in this fire-and-flood cycle, which I really believe we truly are, it’s important to remember that the Thomas Fire was still burning when this happened. The Camp Fire was still burning until up to a couple days ago.

"You switch from fire to winter immediately, so I’m firmly convinced we’ll see more debris flows in California.”

The nonprofit proposes installing debris nets, like this one in Camarillo, across Montecito creeks where debris flows occurred on Jan. 9.
The nonprofit proposes installing debris nets, like this one in Camarillo, across Montecito creeks where debris flows occurred on Jan. 9.  (Courtesy photo)

The nonprofit’s name purposefully does not include Montecito or Santa Barbara, since the members see its work potentially reaching other communities in need. McElroy has already been in touch with Ventura and Los Angeles county fire officials to offer the group’s research, and what they’ve learned.

Mattingly said the nonprofit, which has the Santa Barbara Foundation as its fiscal agent, has raised about $2 million, and has spent about $600,000.

The expected total cost of the net project is a moving target because of the insurance, performance bonding and monitoring costs, but is estimated at $7 million, McElroy said.

“There are a lot of donors on the sideline waiting for us to say we’ve got a permit,” Mattingly said.

The group hopes to hear back on its permit applications by the end of the year, and to start installing the nets in January if they get all the agreements in place.

“Nobody’s working on this except us, and if in the end of the day we can’t, then we gave it our best shot,” McElroy said.

“Hope is not a plan,” members of the group say, like a mantra.

County leaders continue to emphasis the risk of post-fire flooding and debris flows, and a South Coast debris flow risk map is available online here

Emergency notification and evacuation protocols have been altered since last winter, and residents are encouraged to register for Aware & Prepare emergency alerts

Working with the county

The nonprofit team has been forming public-private partnerships, and has been meeting with county staff since January.

“They have collaborated with the county and have been able to quickly build resources – both financial and human capital – to help find best-fit solutions and become a model for resilient community partnerships,” County Executive Officer Mona Miyasato said of The Partnership for Resilient Communities.

When the nonprofit reached out to the county after the debris flows last winter to offer study results and resources, the county said yes, said Matt Pontes, who is leading the disaster recovery efforts in the County Executive Office.

“It was all hands on deck,” he told Noozhawk.

Santa Barbara County leaders are “really good at first response,” but realized they haven’t done a lot of long-term recovery efforts, he added.

The nonprofit has paid for several technical studies and offered the results to the county, and paid the salary of emergency management consultant David Fukutomi to work for Pontes as a project expert for six months.

Pontes said the nonprofit “really stepped up for the community,” and its relationship with the county has worked out well so far.

The orange paint marks the spot of a debris net site in San Ysidro Creek proposed by The Partnership for Resilient Communities. Click to view larger
The orange paint marks the spot of a debris net site in San Ysidro Creek proposed by The Partnership for Resilient Communities.  (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

“They certainly fill a gap,” Pontes said. "Sometimes it’s hard for government to go and be that much of an advocate for stuff on private land that we don’t own."

The debris nets project proposal 

It’s McElroy’s name on the permit application to Santa Barbara County, and the packet of documents includes signed permission to apply from property owners on the land with proposed net locations.

The landowners are: Mary Kay Robinson Living Trust for the Cold Spring sites; Land Trust for Santa Barbara County for the Hot Springs sites; Wilderness BB LLC (a Ty, Inc. entity) for San Ysidro sites; the Peggy Pollock Trust and Thomas Philip Pollock Trust for the Buena Vista sites; and the U.S. Forest Service for the Romero sites, according to permit application documents.

The Partnership for Resilient Communities intends to apply for permits to install 25 to 35 more nets next year, and those would mostly be in U.S. Forest Service land, McElroy said. Additional applications would probably have to go through full CEQA environmental review, not an emergency permit process like this year’s proposal.

Since property owners so far have only given permission for the permit application, not the project itself, The Partnership for Resilient Communities will have to reach agreements with them to satisfy liability concerns, McElroy said.

The project proposal, as described by Access Limited Construction’s work plan document submitted to the county, includes installing seven nets in Buena Vista Canyon and two each in Cold Spring, Hot Springs, San Ysidro and Romero canyons.

Each individual net has a different “retention volume,” ranging from 1,256 cubic yards to 14,420 cubic yards.

The most nets, and largest retention volume, are proposed for Buena Vista Canyon, which has no debris basin.

Access Limited Construction estimated a project cost of $6.2 million for installation, maintenance, “debris management” and net removal. That does not include insurance, performance bonding, or other costs.

The basic work plan for the nets is described as installing cable anchors in the stream banks and assembling the cable and net infrastructure across the channels. The nonprofit proposes using helicopters to fly in equipment, with personnel hiking in daily.

The bottom of the nets would be 3 to 5 feet above the bottom of the creek channel itself.

The net project application proposes installing 15 nets in five Montecito canyons. Click to view larger
The net project application proposes installing 15 nets in five Montecito canyons.  (Courtesy photo)

Once the nets were installed, there would be maintenance inspections annually or after storm events, and necessary equipment would again be flown in, according to the work plan.

Debris management – not removal – is proposed, which is basically redistributing debris retained by the nets, including moving it to the downstream side, presumably on the same property. The county application says no third party interests would be affected by this temporary project.

Excavators would be flown in by helicopter to “reestablish the low-flow channel” and some work may be finished by hand, the application materials note.

The debris “will be handled by placing the excavated material downstream over the debris retention net in a manner that does not impede on the low flow channel.”

No sediment would be removed, and a biological monitor would oversee the “redistribution” of material, the proposal says.

“All that stuff is supposed to go to the ocean, just not in 15 minutes at 35 mph,” McElroy said.

Large boulders may be broken up with hydraulic rock splitters and wood chippers may be used on organic debris, the work plan notes.

When the nets are removed, “the site will be left with the low-flow channel established to enable fish passage.”

Four of the five creeks have debris basins downstream of the proposed net locations, which Santa Barbara County Flood Control empties after storm events.

“With the metal nets, my big concern was making sure they don’t get in the way of what we’re trying to do and we don’t get in the way of theirs,” Flood Control Director Tom Fayram said.

The proposed net locations are upstream of where Flood Control work is concentrated, he said.

Emergency permit status

The nonprofit has to get insurance coverage, and a performance bond is part of the ongoing negotiations, since both the county and property owners want to ensure the nets are maintained and removed even if something were to happen to the nonprofit entity or its members, McElroy added.

The Partnership for Resilient Communities needs permit approval from: Santa Barbara County’s Planning and Development Department, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the regional water quality control board, and the U.S. Forest Service for Romero Canyon.

The Corps of Engineers already approved the application, he said, and other agencies are processing the request and could issue decisions by the end of the year.

Concerns about liability, negative environmental impacts and performance guarantees will likely all be considered when agencies evaluate the emergency permit application.

Two of the 15 proposed net sites would affect local trails, and the nonprofit would have to mitigate those in the project, McElroy said.

County senior planner Tess Harris said the emergency application is based on factors such as the likelihood of El Niño this winter, according to NOAA, and low vegetation regrowth in the Thomas Fire burn area.

Fire and flood control officials believe there’s a potential for debris flows this winter season, which gives the county a reason to consider the project, she said.

The county has permit authority over 13 of the 15 proposed sites (two are on Forest Service land), but the property owner for the Hot Springs sites (the Land Trust) “decided not to pursue the project on their land” so the county is not considering those sites, Harris said.

If the nonprofit and owner work something out later, the county could consider the permit, she added.

Pontes said he expects the county’s Planning and Development Department to approve the emergency permit, maybe with conditions.

“I think everybody kind of sees the greater good here, but we don’t know until all the agencies weigh in.”

Pontes also said he doesn’t expect county liability from the project, and believes that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is the likely agency to require a performance bond.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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