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LA Times article suggests Santa Barbara Co. neglected debris basins prior to Montecito mudslide

Posted at 3:14 PM, Dec 20, 2018

A Los Angeles Times article published Thursday claims Santa Barbara County knew about the dangers of a potentially destructive mudslide in Montecito but did little to prevent such a disaster.

According to the article, the county was warned about the danger of mudslides in the late 1960s after the Army Corps of Engineers built several debris basins above the community. But over the years, the report says the county failed to adequately maintain the basins and they shrunk in size.

The basins were built to catch boulders, trees and brush that can be swept away in a heavy storm.

Reporter Joe Mozingo writes that following the Thomas Fire, crews spent eight days digging out about half of the basins, but when they were done, a county surveyor reported that they were not cleared out to full capacity.

County Deputy Public Works Director Tom Fayram reportedly disputed those findings.

On Jan. 9, 2018, a heavy storm dumped more than a half-inch of rain on the area in about 15 minutes, causing mud, boulders, and debris from the recently burned hillsides to rush down into the community of Montecito. Hundreds of homes were destroyed or damaged. Twenty-one people were killed and two people who were swept away have never been found.

Santa Barbara County responded to the L.A. Times article Thursday with the following statement:

Prior to January 9, 2018, the County removed all debris that was present in 11 debris basins. Unlike debris basins that are concrete lined, the County’s basins are dirt and rock pits. Thus, even when the County’s basins are empty, there is still dirt and rocks at the bottom of the basin. The County of Santa Barbara’s Debris Basin Maintenance Plan prescribes that a basin be cleaned when it is 25% full. It also prescribes that after a fire, they are cleaned out regardless of how much is in the basin. We strictly follow this policy.
We communicated with the Corps many times, as did our state and federal legislators. It was concluded that the quickest way to clean the basins beginning in December 2017 was for the County to lead the work with assistance from local contractors. The Corps issued the necessary permits to the County to conduct the work. Following the 1/9 Debris Flow, we engaged the Corps to do the massive cleanout of the 11 basins clearing hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of debris.
No aspects of fire or storm preparation or response, including emergency basin and channel clean outs, were restricted by budgetary or personnel constraints. We have been in constant response, preparedness and recovery since December 6, 2017. Protecting life, property and infrastructure is our first priority. If necessary, emergency reserves would be released to cover the cost of this critical work. The County closed non-essential offices for four days between December 26-29, 2017 however critical staff and emergency or maintenance personnel were required to work or be on-call. For example, staff, contractors and mutual aid from Public Works, Office of Emergency Management, P&D, Sheriff, Fire, County Executive Office, and others continued to work between Christmas and New Year’s.
Various scientists are trying to estimate the total volume of material brought down during the Debris Flow. Some estimates are as high as 1-2 Million cubic yards of debris.
As mentioned earlier, the County of Santa Barbara’s Debris Basin Maintenance Plan prescribes that a basin be cleaned when it is 25% full. It also prescribes that after a fire, they are cleaned out regardless of how full. We strictly follow this policy. In addition, the Corps is studying the area to determine options to increase creek and basin capacities, including the construction of additional basins.
Next Steps
The County applied for several Hazard Mitigation grants to improve three of the basins; Cold Springs, San Ysidro, and Romero; and also to add another basin on San Ysidro Creek. These grants are still pending.

To read the full L.A. Times article, click here.