After the big Jan. 9 storm that hammered Santa Barbara County, several major news media outlets highlighted the deadly Montecito flash flooding and debris flows that occurred five years before, to the day. While I do not want to minimize the 2018 tragedy, I want to raise awareness of a smaller corner of Santa Barbara County that is feeling the impacts of the one-in-25-year storm that recently passed through.
Over the past year, farmers have been in a small battle with the county over a recreational trail it wishes to impose adjacent to our agricultural lands along the Santa Maria River levee. The trail is a permitted second use by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which built the levee. The primary use is flood control — to protect the city of Santa Maria from flooding by storm events like the one we just experienced.
Not only did the corps determine that the levee would be worthy of protecting Santa Maria, but also some of our county’s richest farmlands that extend west beyond Santa Maria to Guadalupe, where the structure stops at the Highway 1 bridge. At the time of its construction, the Army Corps of Engineers decided not to pursue construction west of the bridge in Guadalupe, as the properties that could be damaged by flooding near the mouth of the river did not provide enough value to warrant the expenditure.
In other words, not enough people would be affected, and the value of their land, their homes and their possessions did not equate to spending millions of dollars to continue levee construction for their protection. Instead, Guadalupe property owners have been forced to construct barriers, at their own expense, which were obliterated in the most recent storm.
What we saw in this last storm was swells of water more than 10 feet high raging through farmland on the north and south sides of the Santa Maria River, wiping out strawberry and vegetable production. We saw residents south of the river throwing out their belongings, with the view of high-water marks staining half the height of their homes behind them. Some of our county’s most underserved residents are now forced to spend money they do not have to rebuild their lives, because the Army Corps of Engineers did not think their livelihoods were worth the investment to protect.
Meanwhile, our Assembly and congressional representatives and our governor were in Montecito, smiling for photos, congratulating everyone on a job well done, and taking pride in the success of a multimillion-dollar debris basin to prevent another catastrophe there.
To be clear, my frustration is not directed at Montecito or its residents. The community should be commended for its resilience and the preventative efforts it has since taken.
However, Guadalupe and its residents cannot necessarily afford to mitigate or rebuild.
I am disappointed that the Army Corps of Engineers finds more value in opening the levee as a recreational trail than it does extending it beyond Highway 1 to protect residents of a low-income community.
I am even more disappointed in our elected representatives who claim to care for the underserved but bring cameras to show off the investment in a community that writes checks to their campaigns, not raise awareness for the minority and underprivileged community they so proudly declare to serve.
*Also published in Noozhawk.