The group that installed debris nets in the canyons above Montecito in the wake of the deadly 2018 debris flows has decided to remove the devices after failing to reach a financial agreement with Santa Barbara County for their future maintenance and upkeep.
The removal work will begin this week, he added.
The project had been seeking to have the county take over responsibility for maintaining and cleaning out the six nets — two each in San Ysidro, Cold Spring and Buena Vista canyons.
“We just couldn’t get to a deal with the county, and we needed to have them out by Nov. 15, or they would have had to stay there until the end of the winter, until May,” McElroy told Noozhawk.
“If the nets filled up, we didn’t have the revenue to clean them out,” McElroy added. “We felt it was irresponsible for us to keep the nets in place without the financing to clean them out ahead of an El Niño year.”
Cleaning out mud, rocks and debris from the upper San Ysidro net, which filled up after the major storms in January, cost about $1.2 million, far more than original estimates.
County Public Works Director Scott McGolpin said that the nets “were supposed to be put in until the watershed healed,” something that largely has occurred in the six years since the Thomas Fire denuded the mountains.
“Our biggest concern is making sure we have the funding to fulfill all the conditions that are related to the nets” if they remain in place and the county takes over responsibility for cleaning out and maintaining them, McGolpin said.
The county had proposed a public-private partnership, McGolpin said, with the county taking responsibility for four of the six nets.
He said the county proposed a 50-50 partnership “until other public funding sources became available.”
“If I take responsibility for four nets and they all fill up at $1.2 million each, I’ve got to make sure I’m covered on the cash piece,” McGolpin said.
Ultimately, the nonprofit was unwilling to accept the county’s terms.
The five-year county permit for the nets expires on Dec. 21, less than two months from now, and on the eve of a predicted El Niño winter season that could portend more heavy rainfall for Santa Barbara County, and the Santa Ynez Mountains in particular.
Before this week’s decision to remove the nets, the Project for Resilient Communities — the nonprofit that conceived the net project, raised the funds to pay for it, and shepherded it through permitting to installation — was asking the county for a permit extension, for at least one year and up to five years.
“We’re asking to have this project reconsidered based on the danger to the community, and the history that we’ve discovered that debris flows are far more frequent than we have been led to believe,” McElroy said recently about the proposed permit extension. “There’s a certainty that it is going to happen again.”
The matter was scheduled to be considered by the Montecito Planning Commission on Nov. 15, according to Willow Brown, the Santa Barbara County planner assigned to the case.
However, McElroy said the organization will be withdrawing its application for the permit extension.
Nets installed after deadly 2018 debris flow killed 23 people
The $6 million debris nets project evolved in response to the deaths, injuries and widespread devastation caused by the Jan. 9, 2018, debris flows and flooding in Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria.
The steep and rugged canyons above those communities had been stripped of vegetation by the 281,893-acre Thomas Fire just a month before an intense storm cell deluged the area in the early morning hours.
With nothing to hold back or slow the runoff, giant walls of water, mud, debris and boulders — some the size of small houses — careened down into the populated areas.
The horrifying result was 23 people killed, hundreds injured, and thousands of homes and other structures damaged or destroyed.
After the initial disaster recovery, and with the knowledge that it would be several years before the watershed vegetation grew back and recovered, community members began searching for ways to provide more protection for Montecito and adjacent areas in the face of future storms.
Research led McElroy and others to the debris nets, which they say have been used successfully in other parts of the nation and world.
Some environmental groups expressed concern at the time about the impacts the nets would have on fish and other wildlife that inhabit the sensitive riparian areas. But they acquiesced given the tremendous trauma the community had just faced, and with the understanding that the nets would in essence be an experiment.
“Given the circumstances, most of us in the environmental community saw it as an extenuating circumstance,” said Ben Pitterle, director of advocacy and field operations for Los Padres ForestWatch, “Perhaps a more imminent risk of a debris flows.
“It originally was sold as temporary and an experiment, until the mountain slopes could be revegetated.”
Groups considered cost, benefit of nets
Spring forward five years, with the vegetation and watershed largely recovered, and the issue seemed to boil down to a question of how effective the nets are — or will be — in reducing the risk of future debris flows, and at what environmental and financial cost.
The nonprofit and others who were supporting the extension believe the debris nets provide an additional layer of protection for Montecito beyond the existing and new downstream debris basins that are designed to catch debris from flooding and debris flows.
They note that researchers have discovered that damaging debris flows are not some remote and random events, but rather have occurred dozens of time with varying intensity over the past two centuries.
“What they found out was that it’s not an every-five-century thing…” McElroy said. “They went back to 1820, and found 41 events, and now with what happened this last January, it was 42.”
The Project for Resilient Communities also contends that environmental monitoring shows minimal impacts from the nets, and the approach being taken to clean them out will keep most of the material in the stream bed in the area around the nets.
“From our point of view, it isn’t an either/or — debris basins or nets. It’s what if they were working in support of one another so that the material is still gonna come down, but the nets break the momentum?” McElroy said.
“And so (the material) is coming down, but it’s not coming down at 40 miles an hour all at once — that it slows down and operates as a break.”
However, environmental groups are far from convinced, and several opposed the permit extension. They say the nets no longer provide any significant protection from flooding and debris flows, while causing ongoing negative impacts to critical habitats.
“It didn’t work, and it’s time for the project proponents to come to terms that it’s time to remove the nets,” Pitterle told Noozhawk. “The slopes are revegetated, there are new large debris basins in place that provides far more protection…
“We run into projects where people want to feel they are in control, to try to manage nature to manage for risk. At what point is something acceptable and balanced? We can’t assume that any increment of risk avoidance is worth the risk.
“I don’t think there’s any evidence it’s provided any benefit to date. There’s no evidence it would have prevented flooding.”
Removing Debris Was Delayed, More Expensive Than Expected
The current permit requires quick action to clean out any nets that fill up with boulders, debris and mud, including inspections within 24 hours of a storm event. But several factors have conspired to make that all but impossible.
For example, heavy flows into the debris net on upper San Ysidro Creek created a 25-foot dam of smaller rocks and boulders, debris and mud in the wake of heavy storms last January. The back-up created a waterfall where none existed before.
But despite the permit requirement to clean out the nets quickly, the effort to remove that material only got underway in the last few weeks, more than nine months later.