As you might have seen or read in the past week, the community of Montecito, CA, has experienced catastrophic mudslides following the Thomas Fire. As I write this, 20 people are known to have died, several others are missing, dozens of homes have been completely destroyed, and hundreds more have been damaged. Montecito is a few miles from the offices of Forester Media, so those of us who work for Erosion Control magazine have had an uncomfortably close view of what’s been happening.
Heavy rains in the early morning hours on Tuesday, January 9—including more than half an inch in a single 5-minute period, according to the National Weather Service—led to the mudslides, as tons of rock and debris washed down from the steep and newly burned slopes above Montecito. If you’ve been following the story, you probably know many of the details. There’s an aspect to all this you might not have thought of, though, and that’s how cleanup crews are disposing of the sediment that’s being removed from neighborhoods, roads, and Highway 101, which remains impassable.
A great deal of it is being deposited on local beaches—a practice that’s causing some controversy. Emergency permits from the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies allow up to 300,000 cubic yards of sediment to be deposited in the surf zone. So far, as this local article reports, 800 cubic yards have been placed on one beach and 900 cubic yards on another, and the cleanup work has only just begun.
Each load of sediment is inspected before being deposited on the beach, and boulders and building debris are being removed, but under the emergency permit the sediment does not have to be tested. Loads that are rejected are being transported to an inland disposal site.
At the end of the article, there is a statement from Hillary Hauser, executive director of Heal the Ocean, whose organization has received many inquiries and complaints from local residents about the impact of depositing this material on the beaches. It’s a measured response that includes a statement from the director of Santa Barbara County Public Works and acknowledges the need to get the community back to some state of normalcy. “Prudent decision-making is harder in a time of disaster of this magnitude . . . but a decision-making process is put in place nonetheless, to consider the options,” writes Hauser.
Disposal of debris and sediment is a challenge after many natural disasters. In this recent article from Stormwater magazine, a FEMA coordinator in Biloxi, MS, recalls the process of cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina in 2005; it took 2 years and cost $63 million dollars to move “enough material to create a six-story-high football field.” Every community hit by a hurricane, flood, or landslide has a similar story.
Have you faced the problem of what to do with debris or mud in your community? What were the options? Share your experiences in the comments.