Streets and roads have been reopened, and evacuated residents have returned to their homes — or what was left of them — following the deadly 1/9 Debris Flow in Montecito.
But the job of removing thousands of cubic yards of mud, boulders, trees, lumber and other debris that flowed down from the hillsides denuded by the Thomas fire in December is still going on and will be for some time.
Crews from the Santa Barbara County Flood Control District and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are still clearing debris from water channels and drainage basins in a race to open them up before another major storm strikes.
The task is about 50 percent complete, Rob Lewin, director of the County Office of Emergency Management said Thursday.
“Let us not be fooled the rocks and debris have been flushed from the mountains by the 1/9 storm,” he said. “The mountains and canyons are still loaded with rock, sediment and other debris.
“Our immediate health and safety priorities right now are to clean the debris basins and to clean the channels … . This is our focus every day.”
The dilemma for the county — and for private property owners — is where to get rid of all that debris.
Mud and debris that comes from public rights of way are taken to a sorting facility where it is separated, Lewin said.
Soil is taken to a beach and vegetation is chipped for use as groundcover, while the remaining debris, along with that cleared from drainage basins, is loaded into a steady stream of dump trucks making their way to a quarry near Santa Rosa Road and the Santa Ynez River in Buellton.
And that has some people worried about potential pollution from soil contaminated with toxic household and agricultural chemicals.
“Yesterday there must have been 50 dump trucks in a line going in and coming out,” Santa Ynez Valley Union High School teacher Chip Fenenga wrote in an email. “While I understand the needs to get Montecito up and running … what is going into this dump?
“I’m sure there was lots of junk from the garages, cleaners, oils and paints that were lost in the flood … . I know if I dump that in the garbage or street, I will have a hazmat team at my house … .”
Others who have horses downstream from the site also have expressed concerns about contamination in the water and its transfer to plants they graze on.
The county’s website says samples of soil and mud from 10 sites were tested for such hazardous materials as metals and oils, and the results showed those materials “were within acceptable nonhazardous levels.”
Levin said that was the case with mud and debris on private property.
“The soil that was deposited on people’s property was randomly tested in 10 locations, and in all cases the soil tests indicated it was suitable for domestic use in landscapes,” Lewin said. “It may also have use on farm fields.”
Private property owners can deposit clean dirt and rock at Buellflat Rock Co. in Solvang at a cost of $40 per load, according to the Waste Removal Options information sheet on the county’s website.
Mixed loads can be dropped at some materials management facilities in Santa Barbara at cost of $95 per ton, while others, like the Santa Maria Landfill, say to call for prices.
Lewin said the county has applied to the state to expand the capacity of the Tajiguas Landfill and is looking for old mining sites and other locations were debris can be deposited.
But because of the high cost of hauling debris plus tipping fees, the county is preparing to launch another alternative — a debris exchange website that will allow property owners and builders looking for soil and rock to connect with those who want to dispose of it.
“The county will not be involved in the exchange,” Lewin said. “This is a market-driven process. We are merely providing the platform.”
He pointed out the sandstone from the surrounding hillsides is considered beautiful and is highly desirable for construction.
He also said not all the material deposited by the flows has to be removed but could be used to improve the land in a way that would make homes less vulnerable to future flooding and mud and debris flows.
“We are encouraging people to find innovative ways to keep material on their property, both in the short term and the long term, to work with (their) engineers and … architects to find ways to improve the property with the material on-site,” Lewin said.