A Blueprint for Public Service… The Partnership for Resilient Communities

By Bob Hazard   |   November 14, 2019

Two weeks ago at the Montecito Association’s 34th Annual Beautification Day, the Partnership for Resilient Communities (TPRC) was selected as the 2019 recipient of the “Citizen of the Year” honors. The ceremony included last year’s winner Abe Powell of Bucket Brigade fame and 1st District County Supervisor Das Williams, along with MA officials.

Who Are the TPRC Players?

The TPRC core team consists of former Santa Barbara Fire Chief, Pat McElroy, as its Executive Director, who has never met a problem that he can’t solve by building the right coalition of public officials and private citizens; Joe Cole, a master at legal permitting and legal liability solutions; Gwyn Lurie and Les Firestein, the talented husband and wife team who led the global research for innovative solutions and discovered “Ring Nets”; Alixe Mattingly, the indefatigable, energized and articulate team member who created the messaging to inspire the community; Mary Rose and Suzanne Elledge, gurus at Land Use and CEQA environmental issues; and Brett Matthews, Elisabeth Fowler and Hollye Jacobs, who championed the $5 million private community donation effort.

The TPRC network has been widened to include a host of additional volunteer concerned citizens, creekside landowners, some 700 community contributors and county officials who all saw a desperate community need, adopted a focused plan of action, and executed it within a time frame no one thought possible.

How Did It All Begin?

Incredulously, Partners for Resilient Communities was conceived on the back of a napkin, 15 months ago, when a small band of private Montecito citizens gathered together informally at Cottage Hospital, while visiting friends and loved ones injured by the 1/9 mudslides and debris flows. The discussion of what our community could do to prevent a repeat catastrophe evolved into a plan to create a public/private partnership, structured as a non-profit 501(c)(3), to pursue ways to lessen the risk of future debris flows.

Repurposing the Community’s Resolve

From the start, the mission was clear: Prevent further death and destruction by doing everything possible to stop more boulders and debris from roaring down our canyons. TPRC recognized early on that tested and proven low-tech and environmentally sustainable solutions already exist in erosion-prone areas around the globe. TPRC founders quickly looked at similarly distressed communities in Switzerland and Japan. Volunteers met with geologists and disaster mitigation experts from around the world; identified advanced mountain monitoring/mitigation systems; and explored federal and state disaster grant opportunities.

The use of Geobrugg ring nets became the clear and unequivocal choice. In just 15 months, TPRC brought the Montecito community together to fund and install six massive nets in Cold Spring, San Ysidro, and Buena Vista canyons, the three highest risk areas in Montecito. These six nets more than double the capacity of the existing debris basins for a fraction of the cost of other measures that were considered. 

Site Identification and Approval

Among the many remarkable accomplishments of the volunteer TPRC group was persuading private property owners along Buena Vista Canyon Creek, Cold Spring Canyon Creek and San Ysidro Canyon Creek to allow a netting system to be installed on their property. Property owner demands included guaranteed immunity from personal liability, protection from responsibility in the removal and maintenance of the nets, and freedom from involvement in the nightmare of the county permitting process.

The Permitting Process

The permitting process involved emergency environmental approval from not only Santa Barbara County, but also the Army Corps of Engineers, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the California Water Quality Control Board, the U.S. Forest Service among others without a formal EIR. Even emergency approvals can generally take up to four years. The multi-talented Partnership team, with considerable cooperation from the county, won approvals in a record eight weeks – from November 1 to December 21. 

How Did TPRC Do It?

According to the articulate and gracious Alixe Mattingly, TPRC adopted the following strategies:

• We held dozens of stakeholder meetings to get community feedback. 

• The owners of the canyons believed in us and gave us their permission to build these nets on their properties.

• Montecito Trails Foundation and other environmental groups have been positive partners.

• The County government issued emergency permits and funded our performance bond with the California Department of Fish & Wildlife. 

• Dozens of residents and many of our largest community institutions wrote over 100 letters of support during our permitting process. 

• The Santa Barbara Foundation was behind us every step of the way and the Montecito Bank & Trust was invaluable.

• The Montecito Journal believed in us when many were skeptical. 

• Over 700 local residents and foundations donated more than $5 million, in contributions ranging from $10 to $300,000. Our budget goal has always been $5.4 million. 

• Six ring nets have been installed on-time and within budget, and in compliance with all permitting requirements, without any adverse incidents.

Degree of Difficulty for the TPRC Effort

Can a single individual, or even a community team of volunteer concerned citizens with no office space, no organization structure, no chain of command, no full-time workers, and no funding, design, fund and implement a technologically challenging program of substantial complexity? The selection of Pat McElroy as Executive Director, with his long history of community service and his well-earned reputation and respect from county officials, allowed an “Impossible Dream” to be turned into a “Singing in the Rain” saga of success. 

The Future: What’s Next for TPRC?

The Partnership for Resilient Communities now stands ready to turn their efforts over to the County of Santa Barbara for installation of additional nets, on-going maintenance and removal of the nets, and installation and maintenance of a proposed early warning system. A new challenge is to determine the optimum mix of ring nets and debris basins to provide the maximum community protection at the least cost.

The Randall Road Debris Basin Project

Two weeks ago, 1st District County Supervisor Das Williams; Tom Fayram, County Water Resources Deputy Director; and Jon Frye, County Flood Control Engineering Manager, took a well-deserved bow for their role in debris flow mitigation. The county proudly announced the receipt of FEMA grants for a new debris basin on East Valley Road, a mile east of the Upper Village, where a newly renovated bridge spans San Ysidro Creek. The planned added debris basin is estimated to cost some $20 million, where FEMA pays 75% of the cost while the county picks up the remaining 25% share.

The county intends to purchase eight homesites. The one home not totally destroyed has already been purchased by the County for $4 million. The other seven totally destroyed homes will be purchased for the fair market value of the land only.

The new Randall Road Debris Basin will have an undisclosed capacity. It will sit alongside the San Ysidro Creek Channel north of East Valley 192 and Randall Road, upstream of the East Valley Road bridge and underground culvert. A debris basin is simply a large hole adjacent to the creek channel, large enough to capture boulders, trees and large debris while allowing water to pass downstream. Design work is scheduled to be completed in the Spring of 2021 with construction beginning in the Summer of 2021 with completion in the Fall of 2021.

The new Randall Road debris basin proposed by the county will feature a slotted basin channel that will allow year-round passage of fish and animals. This new design feature was already in place in Gobernador Canyon in Carpinteria on 1/9 and worked quite well.

Debris Basins Plus Ring Nets

Debris basins are essentially man-made scooped-out holes in the ground, normally positioned behind low earthen dams designed as catch basins to collect rocks and debris. During storms, the water runs either over the dam or through a hole in the bottom of the basin which can become blocked by the accumulated debris. Elevated ring nets allow wildlife to pass under the nets in dry times and allow water to flow under and through the nets in periods of high intensity rainfall, leaving behind the trapped trees and boulders.

No one can ascertain which is more effective on a cost/benefit scale – new debris basins or more ring nets. Both help make the Montecito community safer, but even with wider creek channels, two or more ring nets on each creek and an added debris basin, flood control experts cannot promise that new mitigations could prevent the massive damage should a repeat of the 1/9 concentrated deluge strike Montecito in the next five-year period.

“The TPRC always worked in close support with County Flood Control, Public Works, the County CEO and the County Board of Supervisors. We always felt that TPRC was just adding ‘bandwidth’ and community resources to an agency under tremendous stress,” notes McElroy.

Should the TPRC Talent Be Saved and Hoarded?

Doers, not talkers, are the most precious commodity in any community. The team at the Partnership for Resilient Communities, led by Pat McElroy, are exhausted from performing a modern miracle. The hard lessons they learned are an asset to Montecito that needs to be retained, not wasted. As importantly, their positive relationships with the county levers of power, built upon mutual respect and mutual trust, are invaluable. TPRC is recognized as a force that increases community resiliency and protects homes, saves lives, saves businesses and protects the residents of Montecito and our precious semi-rural lifestyle. Why would we dismantle it and throw it away?

What Option Does Montecito Have to Retain the Experience of the TPRC?

Is there any community appetite to retain the TPRC talent by creating a new Montecito Floodwater Management District to work in partnership with Montecito Water, Montecito Sanitary, Summerland Sanitary, and the County of Santa Barbara?

Our community has an abundance of intellectual brainpower. The Partnership for Resilient Communities has shown us a way to harness and use that intellectual capital. The lesson learned is that if you want to solve big problems in an imaginative manner, put together a technologically savvy and politically astute Montecito Think-a-Thon to generate innovative solutions. Don’t lose this asset. Let the discussion begin.

 

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