Message from the Montecito Association: Who Owns the Creeks?

By Sharon Byrne   |   March 14, 2023

As a neighborhood association, we receive lots of questions, and some can be difficult to sort, particularly if they cross multiple jurisdictional lines. We encounter this often with Hands Across Montecito, when we work the area around the Hot Springs exit. In just a few steps on the tracks, you’re moving back and forth between the jurisdictions of the City of Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara County, and the State of California.

After the 1/9/23 storm, we’re getting a lot of inquiries about the creeks, and who has jurisdiction and ownership? It’s proving tough to answer. Here are some examples:

The Hot Springs pools in the creek. In the pandemic, we began experiencing issues with water ownership, pool creation and destruction, late-night access, and trail damage from overuse and littering.

The Hot Springs have apparently always been a draw. Back in the 1870s, there was a hotel up the trail. It was destroyed in a forest fire in 1921. It later became an exclusive club, destroyed by the Coyote Fire in 1964, though the building’s foundation is still there. I hiked up there in the early 2010s, with a friend who grew up near it in the 1970s. She said it was never fenced-off. We found destroyed concrete basins and pipes from the Montecito Creek Water Company.

The Forest Service “owns” the land north of the debarkation point of the trail, owned by County Parks and Rec. The Santa Barbara County Land Trust figures in here, too.

The Jan. 9 storm wiped out the artificial pools created during the pandemic, a huge draw for day-tripping tourists keen to get the Instagram shot. Perhaps Mother Nature rearranged the Hot Springs back to her liking. The Forest Service closed all trails until March 15, both to avoid dangerous conditions and to give the trails time to recover from the storm. Within days of the 1/9 storm, there were reports of a young man who decided he was going to ignore the trail closure and build the pools back up.

Many people felt like that was illegal. What happened to “leave no trace” as part of appreciating and being in nature? Can anyone just move parts of a creek around as they see fit?

But who, if anyone, had jurisdiction?

Five years ago, there was a panel discussion on the geological changes that had occurred as a result of the Thomas Debris Flow. One of the attendees was a senior California Fish and Wildlife officer who expressed strong opinions regarding homeowners who changed creek flow by building up walls to hem it in. One got the sense she thought we would get what we deserved.

Down on San Ysidro creek, neighbors around Ennisbrook noticed a large wall going up in the creek after the 1/9 storm. They were concerned this would divert creek water during high rain events and cause flooding in new places. They consulted with Santa Barbara County zoning and SB Flood Control, and were told that such a wall was neither legal nor would it be permitted. The neighbors filed complaints with county zoning. I called Flood Control and got the impression they did not have jurisdiction.

But doesn’t Flood Control maintain the creeks, in terms of ensuring they are kept clear to drain adequately? Didn’t the Ring Nets project have to go through extensive county emergency permitting to be installed?

Property owners adjacent to creeks report their property lines go into the creek. But do they “own” the creek? When a homeowner on Parra Grande Lane tried to shore up the back end of their property that disappeared into Montecito creek in the 1/9 storm, they were met swiftly by an armed officer of California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. A neighbor reported them. They discovered they needed to obtain a permit to work in the creek. I reached out to our contacts at California Fish and Wildlife, and here’s what they said:

“They will need to submit an emergency notification to us for this, so we can review it. People need to submit notifications to us 14 days after starting the work, so that we can review them and determine if there is any additional work to be done, such as restoration activities, or if too much work was done, we will require them to submit a regular standard streambed notification.”

It feels like California Fish and Wildlife is the ultimate authority on what you can and can’t do on creeks, at least in a state of emergency after a storm.

But we still haven’t found the definitive authority on creeks. Yet.

We’ll keep you posted as these issues evolve.  


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