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As Montecito cleanup continues, a search for where to dump thousands of tons of mud

Montecito cleanup and recovery efforts continue as workers try to get water and sewer lines working in the area.

For days, crews have filled dozens of dump trucks with tangled metal, tire tread, mud and tree branches they cleared from the mudslide wreckage in Montecito.

This week they discarded at least 3,500 tons — or about 7 million pounds — of the muck at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, where it will be stored temporarily until crews can sort through it.

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But with the total haul increasing by the hour, officials are facing a daunting challenge: where to dump thousands of tons of debris.

“There’s a lot of debris out there,” said Brad Bihun, a spokesman for the multi-agency response to last week’s mudflows that killed at least 20 people and destroyed more than 100 homes. One debris basin alone has an estimated 100,000 cubic yards of muck that needs to be removed, said Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown.

Up to 1,000 tons more — per day — could eventually make it down to the Calabasas Landfill. To help with cleanup efforts, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday passed a temporary waiver to allow the intake through mid-April.

Santa Paula Materials, which sells rocks and recycled construction debris, will collect the rocks that are hauled out, while Standard Industries, a building material manufacturer, will take the metal and tires, said Lance Klug, spokesman for the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery’s Office of Emergency Services.

But officials are scrambling to figure out where to put the growing piles of other material. And with the cleanup operation nowhere near complete, another potential threat looms: more rain.

“We’re unsure of how that landscape is going to react to even a small amount of rain,” said Capt. Jon Heggie with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The cold storm should arrive Thursday evening and drop 0.1 to 0.2 of an inch of rain over the Thomas fire burn and debris flow area through Friday morning, said Jayme Laber, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service.

Although that’s not enough rain to create slides in the area under normal conditions, officials are proceeding with caution and warning evacuees to stay away, unsure of what additional precipitation could do to a landscape that has already been massively altered in the last month.

“We’re dealing with a very, very new area of disaster,” Heggie said.

The rain could also make cleanup efforts tougher, he said.

“It’s difficult to work in any type of rainy, wet situation,” Heggie said. “We’re trying to get rid of water, and now we’re going to be adding more water.”

Others weren’t too worried about the forecast. Tom Fayram, the deputy public works director for Santa Barbara County, told a crowd at a community meeting Tuesday night that the anticipated rain does not pose a significant threat.

Workers have made good progress clearing debris out of creek channels that run down the steep hills above Montecito, opening the channels so rainwater can run down the creek beds and not into the streets, he said.

“This rain will give us the first test, but we believe the creek systems can handle this next rain,” he said.

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“We don’t know the full extent of the capacity of our drainage system,” he said. “But we will find out, we will find its weaknesses and we will fix it.”

Meanwhile, officials said three people are still missing after last week’s mudslide, about 1,400 are without power, and a stretch of the 101 Freeway remains closed between Santa Barbara and Carpinteria — even after crews have spent a week trying to clear the muddy, debris-filled river created by the deadly flows.

About 20 crews are trying to restore power but are hampered by “significant mudflow and debris blocking roads,” Southern California Edison spokesman Steve Conroy wrote in an email. “Dozens of poles, wires and other equipment need to be replaced. There is progress, but it will continue to be slow due to current conditions.”

Authorities have not determined the cause of the Thomas fire or the extent that human involvement affected the mudslides, said Cal Fire spokeswoman Blanca Mercado. But those affected by the damage are already trying to assign blame.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of four Santa Barbara County residents accuses Southern California Edison and the Montecito Water District of negligence that contributed to the damage wrought by the Thomas fire and then the rains last week. The lawsuit was filed in Santa Barbara County last week and updated Tuesday.

The lawsuit said the Montecito Water District is responsible for some of the damage during last week’s storm. According to the lawsuit, a water main running between two reservoirs ruptured Jan. 9 and released “8 [million] to 9 million gallons into creeks in the area.” Shutoff valves should have been activated automatically, but that system failed because of a power outage, according to the lawsuit.

Nick Turner, general manager of the Montecito Water District, confirmed Saturday that the 14-inch pipeline connecting reservoirs at the top of the district was washed out in six spots, slowly releasing up to 8 million gallons of water kept in storage.

Debris flows also knocked out a 100-foot section of the pipeline to Jameson Lake, which accounts for as much as 40% of the area’s water supply.

A Montecito Water District spokeswoman did not respond Tuesday to requests for comment about the lawsuit.

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