New debris basin designed to protect future residents from mudslides
Santa Barbara County officials broke ground Monday on a debris basin project along Randall Road and San Ysidro Creek, beginning an effort intended to protect future Montecito residents from the devastating effects of mudslides.
It’s been three years since the Montecito debris flow of Jan. 9, 2018, which claimed the lives of 23 residents and damaged many homes in the area. The former residents of Randall Road in Montecito were heavily impacted by the mudslide, and six of seven of the existing homes situated near San Ysidro Creek were destroyed in the disaster. Since that time, former residents have lobbied for the installation of a debris basin that would offer protection from future disasters.
Their months of planning and lobbying came to fruition Monday when county officials met near the San Ysidro Creek Bridge to commemorate the start of the project.
“Today’s groundbreaking is a result of our community’s commitment to come together and create solutions that minimize the horrific impacts (of) our next debris flow,” Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Taylor said Monday. “While not a silver bullet, the Randall Road debris basin will substantially increase our community’s safety.”
The new debris basin will impede larger materials, like rocks and boulders, from moving down San Ysidro Creek, according to Scott McGolpin, the director of the County Public Works Department. Water and silt can still filter through the creek bed as the basin stops large rocks from tumbling into surrounding structures.
The county received a $13.5 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in November 2020 to complete the project, which makes up the majority of the estimated $15.5 million to $17.5 million needed. A portion of those funds were used to purchase land from six former residents of Randall Road and one former resident of East Valley Road.
The completion of the basin will mark the first significant infrastructure project that will be completed in Montecito in decades, Mr. McGolpin said.
During Monday’s groundbreaking, U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, commended the work of county officials and observed a moment of silence for the Montecito residents who died in the disaster.
“We lost a lot of lives, homes and property on Jan. 9,” Rep. Carbajal said. “The best thing we could do moving forward in honoring their memory is to take action to protect our community from a similar disaster in the future. The Randall Road Debris Basin is key to this assurance. We know that climate change has exacerbated extreme weather events, so it is crucial we invest in projects like this that adapt our infrastructure to mitigate the future threats of climate change.”
He later added, “I have no doubt that this critical investment in our safety and our resilience will pay dividends down the line.”
The project, which will officially begin next Monday, is expected to be completed in December, according to Jon Frye, an engineering manager with the County Public Works Department. Currently, the property that was once filled with homes is barren and covered in large boulders left over from the mudslide. But when the project is finished, Mr. Frye said residents will notice changes to the appearance of the property.
“There will certainly be physical changes within the property itself,” Mr. Frye told the News-Press. “We’re going to be planting some visual barriers, like trees, along the back of East Valley Road. Given some time, as vegetation can grow, when you’re talking five, 10 years out, it’s going to be more of a natural setting. It’s not going to be the stark visual that this certainly is (right now).”
In addition to the many public officials in attendance at Monday’s groundbreaking, a few of the former residents of Randall Road made an appearance at the event. Montecito resident Curtis Skene addressed the crowd on Monday, expressing gratitude at seeing the debris basin finally coming to fruition.
After Mr. Skene’s home was destroyed in the 2018 mudflow, he decided to do something to protect future Montecito residents from experiencing the same devastation. He began attending events and meeting with Public Works officials to propose a debris basin project near the site of his old home on Randall Road.
Now that the project is coming together, Mr. Skene said the project “shows the strength of community activism and should be a model for what we can accomplish together.”
“I’m a very lucky man,” Mr. Skene told the crowd. “First, because I just barely escaped the debris flow three years ago, and secondly because I’ve been able to do something, be part of something, to both heal and protect my community.”
First District Supervisor Das Williams praised Mr. Skene and the other former residents of Randall Road for thinking of how to best protect their community in the face of devastation during his remarks at Monday’s events.
“The neighbors provided an incredible example of how we need to learn as a community to react in a crisis,” Mr. Williams said. “They experienced great pain (and) devastation, and it would have been very understandable to focus and hold on to that pain and devastation. It would have been very understandable if they had thought about their long term financial benefit in it, but neither of those things seemed to be primary in the calculation. Primary in their calculation, I know this from talking to some of them (and) from how rapidly this happened, was how to avoid other people experiencing the pain and devastation that we did.”