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Raging storm waters

Santa Barbara News-Press 16 January 2005

Ray Ford

Two weeks of relentless rain plays havoc on canyon trails

Like wildfire, the water flowing down the canyons is a force that burns if viewed from too close a perspective. Our front country has some of Southern California's finest trails, but many are located along the canyon edges where they are vulnerable to the wrath of the powerful winter storms that seem to hit us every decade or so.

I have been working for the past several weeks with a small crew. Our purpose: to brush out the Cold Springs canyon trails and to add erosion-control features to minimize the damage the hard rain does to the trails.

Trail maintenance is a never-ending sort of business. While the chaparral continues to grow, choking off trail access, the weather tears down the mountains relentlessly, bit by bit. To our good fortune, the past few years have been kind to the trails. In drought years the chaparral encroaches on the trails at a much slower pace and the lack of water keeps the soil somewhat intact.

As always, however, nature seems to have the last laugh. In the space of a two-week period, we have gone from parched soils to hillsides so full of water they have begun to slide downhill in amounts measured in metric tons rather than in cubic inches.

It is one thing to cut waterbars and dips into the trail to channel the water off of it; but when whole hillsides collapse, bringing huge boulders, massive oaks and tons of mud onto the trail, there is little you can do but wait until things dry out and begin picking up the pieces.

On Monday morning I ventured up to the Cold Springs trailhead to see what additional damage had been done after the long night's rain. Each day I have gone up into the canyon to see what's been happening and to make additional repairs as needed. On Sunday afternoon when I left I was satisfied with the state of affairs. With the exception of one slide area a half-mile upcanyon, the trails were holding up.

The rain late last Sunday night and early Monday was not so kind to the canyon, however. In the space of a single night the hillsides finally surrendered to the onslaught of the pounding rain. As I walked up Mountain Drive past two large oaks laying across the road in pools of mud and debris, my apprehension began to rise. What had happened during the night?

The answer was clear as I rounded the final corner and approached the Cold Springs creek crossing. A huge 15-foot long boulder sat at the road's edge and I could see the gully it had carved out on its 300-foot plunge down to the road. A new side canyon had been carved out in less than 12 hours. Not too far ahead the water moved in a torrent across the roadway, waves caused by the main current being pushed along the road and then over the road's edge near the point where the trail begins, cutting away at the asphalt. What incredible power.

Almost immediately after starting up the trail I could see the damage. Barely 20 yards up it, a large slide covered the trail, making it difficult to continue further. Cautiously oozing my way through the ankle-deep mud, I made it through. A hundred yards beyond this point came a second shock: Another side canyon had been carved out in the space of a few hours, completely cutting away the trail and creating a new waterfall.

With a bit more difficulty, I was able to drop down across and make my way to the other side. Though there was little catastrophic damage for the next quarter mile, I was amazed by the power of the water and how high it had risen.

For those who know the bench at the crossing leading up to the West Fork trail, the water had been right under it not too recently and had eaten away at its foundations.

Further up the trail, however, major damage had occurred. Another side canyon had been created and more large boulders and debris were strewn everywhere. Parts of the trail were gone. Not too far beyond that was another slide, this one 6 feet high and perhaps 50 feet across. It had come down the week before, but now even more mud had come down and cut a 10-foot long section of the trail away, making it impossible to go any further up the canyon.

Amazing. The damage was so overwhelming I was stunned. This is not territory where you can bring in machinery to remove the hundreds of tons of rock, mud and brush like you might down on Mountain Drive. It will need to be done by hand, shovelful by shovelful.

Though it is impossible to know until we can cross the creeks and assess the damage to other trails or parts of the Cold Springs Trail, I am sure we will find other horror stories in other canyons stretching across the front country. We already know Jesusita Trail is closed due to a large slide not too far from Cater Filtration Plant and it will be weeks before this is cleared.

What else will we find?

How will we repair the damage? I work with Montecito Trails Foundation, a heroic local organization that has worked for 40 years to raise money to maintain our trails, and with the LPFA and Front Country Trails Alliance to organize volunteers to help us clear the trails. But the damage caused by this two-week period of storms will take an effort far beyond that required for normal trail maintenance needs.

The simple solution, it might seem, would be for the Forest Service to take on the burden of rebuilding the trails. After all, it is responsible for managing many of them. But the truth is, it doesn't have the money or personnel to do the job, thanks to Congress' tight purse strings. The truth also is that we, as a community, have been taking care of our mountain trails for many years through the efforts of volunteers and the MTF, and will continue to do so.

In the next few months we will need a lot of support from the community to rebuild the front country trails. There will be a need for volunteers to help clean up the trails and for donations to help us pay for the materials and crew members needed to work in areas that are difficult for the volunteers to reach.

I would like to encourage all of you who use the trails and appreciate what an important resource they are for our community to get involved, whether by volunteering for a weekend project or donating a few dollars to help with the rebuilding. Out trails have been hit hard and they need our help.

HELP WANTED

TO GET INVOLVED

To get involved through volunteer efforts, make a donation, contribute your services--or learn more about the storm damage or the front country trails:

TO VOLUNTEER

Front Country Trails Alliance (sbtrails.org) is an umbrella group comprising most of the trail-related community groups. You can find out more about the front country trail efforts and join up as a volunteer to help us rebuild the trails at the Alliance Web site.

FOR TRAIL INFORMATION

Santa Barbara Outdoors, www.sb-outdoors.org, Web site provides information about local hiking, biking, and walking opportunities in our area. You'll find updated trail conditions there as well as a large collection of images from the recent storms.

Ray Ford works with Montecito Trails Foundation to help manage its trail maintenance program and with the Front Country Trails Alliance to help coordinate community efforts to care for our trails.