A state legislator toured the bed of the Santa Ynez River in Lompoc on Thursday, getting what he called an “eye-opening” view of the debris that must be removed after the eviction of homeless encampments.
Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, R-San Luis Obispo, walked a three-mile stretch of riverbed with Lompoc police Chief Pat Walsh and Sgt. Kevin Martin to see the numerous camp sites built over several years.
“It was really eye opening,” said Cunningham, whose 35th Assembly District includes the Lompoc and Santa Maria valleys along with San Luis Obispo County. “I was very surprised at what a big operation it was, how many folks were previously living there.”
Although he had been briefed on the situation, Cunningham said he still was shocked to see the large scope of the area needing to be cleaned up from approximately 70 encampments.
Two days earlier, the City Council declared a local emergency in an effort to get help to clean up the riverbed. Estimates for the operation are in excess of $532,000.
“That’s a significant chunk of change,” Cunningham said, adding that he hopes to look at state grants and other types of funding to defray the expense.
City officials have expressed concern that heavy rains could send debris into the ocean or clog the flow of water and cause other environmental problems.
“It’s a dire situation,” Cunningham acknowledged.
Beginning in mid-August, Lompoc, with support from Santa Barbara County and local nonprofit organizations, implemented a multiphase plan to evict transients who were occupying the riverbed.
Thursday’s tour also included a visit to the triage center set up at River Park to provide social services and other assistance to those who were evicted.
Cunningham said it was inspiring to see various participants work toward a comprehensive solution.
“They’ve done some great work, and any support I can help bring from the state level, I know they’ll use it wisely,” he said.
On Tuesday night, City Manager Jim Throop said the local emergency declaration would be followed by pleas for similar actions by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors and Gov. Jerry Brown amid a push for help covering cleanup costs.
The item will go to the Board of Supervisors later this month, according to Bob Nelson, Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam’s chief of staff.
“You don’t go to a contractor and say how do you clean this up?” Nelson explained. “It’s not that easy. It’s kind of an open-ended contract.”
Debris in the riverbed includes biowaste, used syringes and more, creating concerns about liability if the cleanup relies on volunteers. In one area, a crane will be required, officials said.
Nelson and several other county staff members worked with Lompoc municipal staff in planning and executing the eviction and cleanup effort.
“It seems like this is a problem that’s countywide and statewide so it makes it sense to bring the state into the fold here as we start to address the issue,” Nelson said.
Efforts also are under way to include state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, in the undertaking.
Cunningham said he will work with the city and county before taking the request for an emergency declaration to Brown, using experience gained during wildfire emergencies.
“We’ve got a bit of a playbook on how to do that,” he noted.