As Santa Barbara County continues to dig out and rebuild after a nearly endless stream of atmospheric rivers hit our region, let us not waste what could be an immensely valuable teaching moment.
The very first lesson? The protection of life and property is no longer the highest goal of government. Quite the contrary. This should be evident considering what has happened in our community over the past decade. A cycle of fires, floods and fools that resulted in heartbreaking fatalities and unbelievable destruction to neighborhoods and infrastructure.
The Thomas fire, among others, devastated the watershed. The devastated watershed then fomented the deadly debris flow in Montecito. And, five years later, despite a new debris basin and steel nets erected across canyons, we flooded once again, incurring some $150 million in damages, albeit with no loss of life.
How can we continue to ignore the fact that the cycle of fires and floods is never-ending? How can we better prepare for the next cycle by way of mitigating the effects of these cyclical events?
Our government won’t let us!
The second lesson pertains to floods. Santa Barbara lives on a very narrow shelf sandwiched between high mountains that produce copious amounts of water runoff and the ocean, which can wreak all sorts of damage by way of high waves and brutal winds. The sensible thing to do? Relative to flooding, we must ensure that every river, stream and creek is maintained to ensure maximum water flow capacities. Regarding storm damage from the ocean, we must armor the coast with sea walls and other types of protection, including the boulders that are currently being dropped in front of the Santa Barbara Yacht Club.
The problems with these common-sense strategies? Various government agencies seek to diminish the carrying capacity of water ways in their quest for preserving and enhancing riparian habitat. To make waterways conducive to such things as fish passage, they don’t support the construction of debris basins and clearing rivers, streams and creeks of foliage because of the habitat value of the same.
Yet, in a storm event, the foliage poses two problems. One, it impedes the flow of water until such a time as it becomes debris! Second, when debris gets washed down the way, it plugs up culverts, which then causes the flow of water to find another path that offers less resistance.
The water escapes the channel and floods neighborhoods, streets, and freeways!
Regarding armoring the coast, I will never forget how many times boulders were dropped on Goleta Beach, only to be picked back up and dropped back down again. This is because the Coastal Commission will only allow temporary protection in dire situations. After the emergency passes, they throw us back to the mercy of Mother Nature, and the cycle begins all over again.
Meanwhile, up in North County, farmers and ranchers are fuming because the rivers, streams and creeks that run through their property are not maintained by the county, and they themselves are not allowed to do their own maintenance either. This has to do with the protection of the creeks and the surrounding habitat by the same regulatory agencies that afflict South County.
Damages to North County’s farmland from these recent storms is in the millions, and we are not done yet, especially as it affects the Lompoc Valley and the city of Guadalupe this early in the storm season.
The point here is that South and North County have something in common. Urban areas and farm fields are being sacrificed by way of regulatory machinations that protect natural habitat and ecosystems over and above the protection of life and property.
Andy Caldwell is the COLAB executive director and host of “The Andy Caldwell Show,” airing 3 to 5 p.m. weekdays on KZSB AM 1290, the News-Press radio station.