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Ordinance to Clean-up Creeks on Private Property OK’d by Santa Barbara County Supervisors

Unanimous decision allows county CEO to determine if immediate stream-clearing is necessary to protect life, public health or safety

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors approved an urgency ordinance on Tuesday to clear debris from creek channels that run down the hillsides above Montecito to the ocean, and some of those creeks are on private property. Click to view larger
The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors approved an urgency ordinance on Tuesday to clear debris from creek channels that run down the hillsides above Montecito to the ocean, and some of those creeks are on private property. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors approved an urgency ordinance on Tuesday to clear debris from creek channels that run down the hillsides above Montecito to the ocean, and some of those creeks are on private property.

The vote was 5-0 in favor of a summary nuisance abatement order allowing the county CEO to determine if immediate stream-clearing is necessary to protect life, public health or safety.

In such cases, the CEO could authorize entry onto private property affected by debris flows to work within 100 feet of the bank top of streams to remove sediment or other obstructions from within the channels.

The decision comes after heavy rains drenched the Thomas Fire-scarred hillsides above the community on Jan. 9, triggering powerful mudslides and deadly debris flows.

“We are not going to be running over people’s lawns — nothing exists in the areas that we would be doing this work,” Tom Fayram, deputy county public works director, said during a regular meeting in the County Administration Building in Santa Barbara. “The reduction in stream capacity is a serious risk to the community. Much of it could remobilize if we have a flood.”

The debris removal started three weeks ago, Fayram said, and county staff continue working around the clock with the assistance of state and federal agencies to clear sediment and materials from creeks, streams and debris basins in the Montecito area.

Until abated, the stream channels pose risks to local roadways, bridges, a stretch of Highway 101 and State Route 192, public utilities, homes and property in the event of future downpours. 

“We need to be prepared for the next rain and avoid this spreading further than it went,” said Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam. “I think everybody understands this is well beyond the normal property-rights discussion.” 

The storm left an estimated two million cubic yards of debris across the community, but the number only provides a snapshot of how much material lies strewn about in Montecito and the amount being dredged out, Fayram said.

“We go to new places every day,” he said. “That is truly an estimate.. and how much ultimately would be moved off — we don’t know.” 

Fayram said the ordinance is one way the county can obtain immediate assistance directly from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

During the clean-up, the Corps of Engineers will contract directly to remove obstructions from channels and basins to restore capacity and reduce flooding danger to homes and businesses.

The project is determined to be exempt from further environmental review requirements under the California Environmental Quality Act guidelines.

The county has submitted a request to the California Governor's Office of Emergency Service for state and federal direct aid to initiate debris clearing in the channels downstream of the Thomas Fire.

The cost projections incurred by the county for disaster response, recovery and rebuilding efforts — since the December’s Thomas Fire start — are likely to exceed $37 million, according to County Executive Officer Mona Miyasato.

Miyasato said that while much of the price tag is expected to be offset through federal and state funding, not every expense will be eligible for reimbursement. 

Preliminary estimates of the county portion are predicted between $7 million and $9 million.

The flooding and mud and debris flows killed 21 Montecito residents, with two persons still missing, storm forced thousands to evacuate, harmed critical infrastructure, damaged 590 structures, and prompted the temporary closure of local roads and highways.

Rob Lewin, director of the county's Office of Emergency Management, said the damage-inspection process is complete, but numbers may rise as work crews continue in the field.

There are 11 debris basins overwhelmed by the enormous rocks, sediment, and trees that are blocking the downstream flow, he said.

The basins had 33 percent of the material from the storm cleared as of Tuesday, Lewin said, while clearing the stream channels is expected to take months.

“On the debris basins, the target date is March 15,” Lewin said. “It’s a lot of effort.”

He noted the drainage basin along Santa Monica Creek is the “most difficult and longest one.”

Matt Pontes, assistant county executive officer, said the January event has significantly changed the topography, flood areas and creeks in several areas.

“Nature is changing this,” Pontes said about the land.

The change requires a different approach to recovery, in addition to the need to prepare for the next rain event and the possibility of more debris flows, according to county staff.

Complete recovery of the Montecito area from the mudflow disaster will take “several” years, according to Pontes’ report.

A new study drafted by the CalFire Watershed Emergency Response Team and National Forest Service’s Burn Area Emergency Response team, in conjunction with the Department of Water Resources and the California Geological Survey, indicates lower thresholds for debris flows, showing storms of lesser magnitude could cause significant damage. 

Pontes said public information efforts are underway to educate residents about the dangers.

“We are not out of the woods yet,” Pontes said. “We are focused on making sure we have the right data and communicating how to be prepared for the next storm event.” 

The full text of the emergency ordinance can be found here.

“The debris is almost overwhelming,” Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann remarked.

December’s Thomas Fire led county officials on Jan. 8 to proclaim a local emergency, citing winter storms on the way, which were predicted to cause debris flows and flooding below recent burn areas.

Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order on Jan. 12 to further assist recovery efforts in Southern California related to the massive Thomas Fire and mudslides. 

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland 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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