Stopped in Its Tracks

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A few weeks ago I mentioned the Watergoat, a low-tech and affordable device that various watershed groups and volunteers are deploying in the Southeastern US to capture trash in waterways.

This week Brigette Burich, the events director here at Forester who runs, among other things, the Western Water Summit and the annual StormCon conference, pointed out a local example somewhat along the same lines. But these heavy-duty nets—you can see a photo here—have a more serious purpose. They’re intended to stop debris flowing downhill during intense storms. Made of steel wire rings and anchored into the canyon walls, they should be able to stop boulders, trees, and other debris, or at least to slow them down.

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Less than a year ago, the community of Montecito, CA, just down the road from our offices, experienced the sort of debris flows these nets are meant to prevent. The Thomas Fire had burned thousands of acres in the hills above Montecito and was immediately followed, on January 9, by extremely heavy rains. The resulting mudslides killed 23 people and damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes.

A nonprofit group called Partnership for Resilient Communities wants to install the nets across creeks and canyons in the hills above Montecito before the next rainy season; it’s in the process of getting permits from the county and, for locations within the Los Padres National Forest, from the federal government.

The plan is to install the nets—two per canyon, in most cases—above existing debris basins. In canyons without debris basins, as many as seven nets would be installed in series. SW_bug_web

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  1. California’s southern coastal hills have been carved by events over a much larger timespan than man has been in the western hemisphere by events resembling last year. Do we really think that we can continue to control the forces of nature at its most furious dynamics? There are many small projects that could be done such as replanting natives, redundant spillways, power, and communication systems that help mitigate devastation of our habitat in more moderate events, but it’s hubris to the Nth power to think that we can permanently hold back the flood of the truly major events. Massive debris check dams have a finite lifespan, encourage development with the false lure of security, and are costly in $$$, energy, materials, and the time for construction. I’m not judging the merits of this proposed plan, but I hope these metrics are given equal weight in the decision as to how to proceed. Some landforms are just not meant for human habitation.

  2. Other more permanent and passively operational systems would probably be better here. I think the key is to blend in and take advantage of the natural forces at work. There are many ways to prevent these events from being so damaging to the communities.

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