‘We Pulled off a Miracle with Randall Road’: $18 Million Debris Basin Project Set to Begin
Excavation of a new debris basin along Randall Road and San Ysidro Creek in Montecito will begin in early May, officials said this week, more than three years after a river of mud and boulders jumped the banks on January 9, 2018, destroying six out of seven homes in the 600 block of Randall Road and killing two people there.
The $18 million project, funded with a $13 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and $5 million in county funds, includes $13 million for the purchase of six properties on Randall Road, plus one across the creek on East Valley Road. One property owner on Randall Road, whose husband and daughter died in the disaster, has not agreed to sell. The basin is designed to encompass all eight one-acre properties, and the work may proceed in two phases, Santa Barbara County officials said.
The County concluded the purchase of seven of the eight properties late last year. A groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled for early May; the Board of Supervisors is expected to approve a $5.2-million contract for the excavation work on May 4.
The debris basin – effectively, an enormous dirt bowl between Randall Road and San Ysidro Creek – will be eight times as large as the existing basin on the creek above Park Lane and much larger than most of the 17 debris basins located along South Coast creeks from Goleta to Carpinteria, County officials said.
“It would have roughly half the capacity of the Santa Monica Creek debris basin that everybody agrees saved most of Carpinteria from damage in the debris flow,” said Santa Barbara County Supervisor Das Williams, who represents Carpinteria and Montecito.
Tom Fayram, who heads the County Flood Control division of Public Works, called Randall Road “a very dangerous place.” He oversaw a massive creek cleanup in the wake of the catastrophic debris flow of 2018.
“What makes this basin site work for us is that you have property owners that are willing to sell, and you have a state highway right there,” Fayram said. “We can trap the debris where we can go get it and haul it out.”
“The Pain of Losing”
Victoria Riskin, a prominent writer and human rights activist who lost her home at 680 Randall Road in 2018, said she hopes the new basin will serve as “a protection and a lasting safeguard for people who live downstream.”
“The pain of losing our homes and our community is so very alive for us,” said Riskin, who is living on Martha’s Vineyard on the East Coast with her husband, David Rintels. “I’m thrilled that everyone came together and decided to do what was best for the community. It’s a great example of making something good out of a tragedy.”
Rebecca Riskin, Victoria’s cousin, was swept away and killed on January 9, 2018, when the avalanche of mud and rocks surged through her home on Glen Oaks Drive, just below East Valley Road.
“I really miss Randall Road, my life in Montecito, and all my friends, but there’s no going back,” Victoria Riskin said. “I didn’t think I’d ever sleep well.”
Riskin plans to place a stone bench in memory of Rebecca on the site of her former property on Randall Road. The inscription, a quote from the poet Maya Angelou, will read: “When we find someone who is brave, fun, intelligent, and loving, we have to thank the universe.”
A Basin Overwhelmed
The one existing debris basin on San Ysidro Creek is much smaller in size than what is planned for Randall Road. It was excavated high in the foothills above Park Lane in 1964, on the heels of the Coyote Fire.
The debris flow in 2018 overtopped that basin by as much as 30 feet. In all, 23 residents died in Montecito that day, including 17 on Montecito Creek and four on San Ysidro Creek. About 470 structures — houses and outbuildings — were destroyed or damaged, and Highway 101 filled with mud.
According to a recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey, more debris was deposited along San Ysidro Creek than on any other creek in Montecito — 388,000 cubic yards in all. That’s more than a third of the total volume of mud, rocks, and trees that surged down the mountainside and into the sleeping community during a deluge. The Thomas Fire that had laid waste to the slopes above Montecito was still smoldering.
The new basin on Randall Road will not stop a debris flow of that magnitude, County officials said, but it can help slow down future flows so that the larger boulders will fall out. The outlet of the basin will allow sand and mud (and fish) to pass through.
“Where My Heart Is”
One remaining landowner, Catherine Montgomery of New York, has not agreed to sell her property to the County, even as excavation on the new basin is set to begin. It’s at 630 Randall Road, and on January 9, 2018, Montgomery’s husband, Mark, and 22-year-old daughter, Caroline, were killed in the fast-moving surge of mud and debris. Her 20-year-old son, Duffy, was injured. Montgomery, the co-founder of a New York firm that provides software for the workers’ compensation market, and her daughter, Kate, were not in Santa Barbara at the time.
Reached by phone in New York this week, Montgomery said, “I’m not intending to sell, because it’s literally all that I have left.”
She said she was not in negotiations with the County.
“I get a great deal of comfort knowing that the land is there, knowing that I can return after COVID with my daughter and my husband’s ashes,” Montgomery said. “The land means everything to our family. It’s everything to me. I’m not looking to sell it to anyone. I’m not trying to stop the project. I’m just trying to keep the one thing I have left.”
Montgomery said her family had lived on Randall Road for 22 years. She said County officials had told her they could build a debris basin without her land.
“The other homeowners haven’t lost all that I lost,” Montgomery said. “I don’t really know what’s going to happen. I wander the Earth, and I know where my heart is: it’s Randall Road.”
Fayram declined to comment this week, saying that property acquisition matters were confidential. Work on the five northernmost properties on Randall Road is expected to be finished in the fall, he said, and the timing for the work on the southern portion depends on when the County is able to secure the property rights for Montgomery’s land.
“We’re going to do the first phase at a minimum and we’re hoping to do the whole basin with this contract,” Fayram said. “That’s what we budgeted for and that’s what we got a grant for.”
The FEMA grant for the Randall Road debris basin was $15 million – three times the $5 million maximum that the agency typically sets for local governments in the wake of disasters. It will pay for 75 percent of the Randall Road project, or about $13 million so far. The County will pay 25 percent, or about $5 million.
Leading the lobbying effort for the grant were Fayram and Jon Frye, the Flood Control engineering manager; County Supervisor Williams; then-state Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara); U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara); Riskin herself; and Curtis Skene, the East Valley Road neighbor who spoke to the Randall Road homeowners one by one after the disaster and connected them with Fayram.
Skene was a just a teenager in 1969 when a debris-laden flood came rampaging down San Ysidro Creek, filling his family’s home at 1709 East Valley Road with three feet of mud.
In 2018, he took refuge under a tree as a wall of mud and rocks 10 feet high threatened to engulf him. In the aftermath, Skene said, he visited Fayram and asked, “What’s a debris basin?” Fayram told him Randall Road was a perfect spot, but that it was not the County’s role to approach the landowners.
Countless phone calls and meetings later, Fayram, Frye, and Skene made a trip to FEMA’s Oakland headquarters to press the case for the County’s $15 million grant application. They were promised on the spot that they would get the money.
“This is a very, very big deal,” Skene said of the coming groundbreaking. “People thought this was pie-in-the-sky. We pulled off a miracle with Randall Road.”
In 2019, the County bought the only property on Randall Road with a house still standing for $4 million. It was at 640 Randall Road and belonged to Ronald Daniels and Joanne Rosenblatt.
Riskin said she and her neighbors spent a lot of time on Zoom last year, talking amongst themselves to come up with a fair price for their ruined properties – something between the pre-2018 value and the current value.
“The great thing I think we did is, we said, ‘Let’s just all ask for the same amount of money – because we all roughly have the same amount of land – and find a number and stick to it,’” Riskin said. “And we got there.”
Late last year, the County concluded the purchase of five of the Randall Road properties, plus 1760 East Valley Road, for $8.3 million. The payments were as follows: $1.4 million to Riskin and Rintels at 680 Randall Road; $1.4 million to Lois Waldref at 670 Randall; $1.4 million to Andrew and Agnieszka Anthony at 660 Randall; $1.4 million to Anthony and Carol Nicoletti at 650 Randall; $1.4 million to Brian and Karen MacDonald at 620 Randall; and $1,254,000 to Dorothy Flaster at 1760 East Valley. The County also paid $400,000 in title and escrow costs.
The Randall Road Basin is the biggest and most expensive debris basin project in the works for Montecito or Carpinteria, but it is not the only one. The County is seeking an additional $9 million in Federal and State funding to modify the spillways at the existing San Ysidro, Cold Springs, and Romero debris basins so that sand and mud can flow through. The project would construct a debris basin on Buena Vista Creek, which has no basin at present, and make operational improvements for future cleanouts at the Santa Monica Creek basin in the Carpinteria Valley.
Last fall, officials said, County crews expanded the capacity of the Cold Springs Basin by about 30 percent with $700,000 in Flood Control funds.