Flood and Mud Preparedness: 2019

By Bob Hazard   |   December 6, 2018

While keeping a wary eye on the weather this winter, residents of Montecito are watching their rainfall charts, fearful of a repeat of heavy storms and mandatory evacuation notices. Seared in our minds are personal memories of the 1/9 disaster when a massive debris flow destroyed or damaged 470 homes in Montecito, and brutally took the lives of 23 of our friends and neighbors.

The Five Creeks that Define Montecito

Montecito has five creek channels that were unprepared for the 1/9 deluge; all remain at risk. Residents along the Montecito Creek suffered the most. Montecito Creek is protected by two small debris basins. A 12,775 cubic yard Cold Spring Debris Basin was constructed in 1974 after the Coyote Fire. In June 2017, the County designated the existing Cold Spring Basin as “scheduled for removal” to protect the two endangered steelhead trout that have not been sighted for the last 45 years.

A second Montecito Creek Debris Basin was added in 2002 by the County, just east of Olive Mill Road and south of the Casa Dorinda retirement facility, with an undersized capacity of 5,500 cubic yards. It was largely ineffective during the 1/9 debris flow.

Despite heroic efforts by County Flood Control to clear the channels and the debris basins before the unexpected deluge, the 1/9 debris flow wasted bridges on Mountain Drive and East Valley; devoured residences in Riven Rock; and obliterated both homes and lives at Parra Grande Lane and East Valley Road. Montecito Creek spared Casa Dorinda, but annihilated homes near Hot Springs and Olive Mill, before pounding the Montecito Inn on Coast Village Road and engulfing the Montecito Oaks neighborhood. The river of mud and debris crossed the 101 to overwhelm the Bonnymede beachside community and close the Four Seasons Biltmore Resort.

The second worst disaster area in Montecito was the engorged San Ysidro Creek, which destroyed the San Ysidro Inn and Casa de Maria before snuffing out homes and lives north of East Valley on Randall Road and south on Glen Oaks Drive and East Valley Lane. It then wasted the woodlands of Ennisbrook; crossed San Leandro Lane near the Crane School; and finally buried the Tiburon Bay community in a river of mud and debris.

The San Ysidro Creek Debris Basin, built in 1964 by the U.S. Corps of Engineers after the Coyote Fire above Park Lane, has an undersized capacity of 7,945 cubic yards. It was maintained annually until 1987. In June 2017, Santa Barbara County designated the existing San Ysidro Debris Basin as “scheduled for removal.”

Less hard hit, but still destructive, was the flooding of Buena Vista Creek, which took out a bridge on East Valley and attacked homes in Birnam Wood. The Romero Creek,with its 15,570 cubic foot Debris Basin, smashed its own bridge on East Valley, flooded Valley Club and closed Sheffield Drive. The Toro Canyon Creek, which took out two bridges on East Valley (192) has two debris basins – the undersized East Toro Canyon Debris Basin with its inadequate 4,805 cubic yard capacity and the Upper West Debris Basin with its slightly larger 8,750 cubic yard capacity. 

Carpinteria Saved; Montecito Not So Much

While Montecito awaits the next storm and wonders what may happen next, Carpinteria has been spared our angst. Why? The Santa Monica Debris Basin above Carpinteria has been dubbed the “Crown Jewel” of County preparedness. That basin, just north of Foothill Road, was built in 1977 by the USDA Soil Conservation Service as a result of the heavy damage to Carpinteria in the floods in 1969.

The massive Santa Monica Debris Basin is designed to trap 208,000 cubic yards of flood debris. To put that in perspective, a typical dump truck holds about 10 cubic yards of debris. All of the Montecito debris basins combined total 55,345 cubic yards, which is slightly more than a quarter of the capacity of the single Santa Monica basin.

During the deluge of January 9, 2018, there was no flooding in Carpinteria from either the Franklin or Santa Monica Creeks. The Santa Monica Debris Basin successfully captured more than 155,000 cubic yards of debris, including boulders and whole trees.

The difference between communities is that Carpinteria enjoys a life and property-saving giant debris basin, paid for by the federal government while Montecito is saddled with inadequate debris basins, with no County funds budgeted for annual maintenance.  

The Montecito Ring Net Solution

A concerned group of Montecito residents, known as the Partnership for Resilient Communities, is attempting to raise $5.3 million in private contributions to pay for the installation of 15 flexible ring nets to protect our community from major debris flows. It is hoped that the anchored ring net installation, still mired in California Fish & Game permitting, can be installed before the onslaught of the winter rains. The goal is to install two ring nets in Cold Springs canyon, two in Hot Springs canyon, two in San Ysidro canyon, two in Romero Creek, and seven in Buena Vista Canyon because it is on private land, making it easier and faster to obtain environmental permits. Allegedly, the ring nets would double the holding capacity of Montecito’s inadequate debris basins.

Unfortunately, the cash-strapped County, mired in debt due to its pension and retirement health care obligations, is unable to contribute one dime to either the purchase, installation, or maintenance of the ring nets, despite receiving some $104 million in Montecito property taxes each year. 

A New Randall Road Debris Basin

To its credit, the County has directed staff to start negotiating with Randall Road homeowners to purchase eight one acre-sized lots that were destroyed during the 1/9 debris flow, seven on Randall, and one on East Valley. The plan is to build a future debris basin for San Ysidro Creek. The County is seeking $19 million in FEMA funding with a $6 million County match to fund the purchase. The land is assessed today at about $2 million, but under FEMA rules, homeowners would receive the pre-disaster land value. With private insurance payouts for homes and possessions, the homeowners would come out whole and could move on without the agony of rebuilding in an unsafe location.

The reaction of homeowners has been positive, except that homeowners below Randall Road and East Valley 192, and homeowners near Para Grande Lane and East Valley, ask why not the same deal for them? A new debris basin could take two to five years to design, permit, and construct. The County has also applied to FEMA for another $5.6 million to expand the capacity of the three existing debris basins on San Ysidro, Montecito, and Romero Creeks, with a $1.9 million County match.

We are a close-knit community. We try to take care of ourselves. What happens to one of us, happens to all of us. But at this point we need all the financial help we can get from the County, FEMA and any other government agency to aid in our recovery and to get back to near normalcy. Meanwhile, let’s hope and pray that the current wider and well-maintained creek channels will save us during the next four months.


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