Friday, August 28, 2009

Jesusita hydromulching proposed : No plastic in the mix this time around, says county public works


August 28, 2009 7:18 AM

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors will vote Tuesday on whether to authorize county actions in support of a hydromulching project to limit any further damage that may be caused as a result of the Jesusita Fire.

The board approved the Emergency Watershed Response Plan for the Jesusita fire on July 7, and hydromulching is a crucial element of the plan. Hydromulching is applied to ease the hazard posed to downstream areas by mudslides, debris flow, sedimentation and an increase in runoff, all of which can occur after a fire.

In May, the Burn Area Emergency Response Report for Jesusita was completed. In it, aerial hydromulching, which is the process of applying paper, wood fiber and a binder to prevent soil erosion, was identified as an effective means of aiding in the reduction of flood peaks and sediment yield to downstream areas.

It is proposed that the process be completed between Sept. 2 and Oct. 19.

According to Deputy Public Works Director Tom Fayram, the county must prepare for the worst, and while there have been some concerns over the possibility of a strong El NiƱo presence, there is no definitive indication of what winter will bring.

"There is no ability to truly forecast whether you're going to have a big winter," he said.

The total cost of the project is expected to be $4.6 million, and 75 percent of it -- $3.6 million -- will come from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The state of California's Emergency Management Agency will provide $690,000, the South Coast Flood Zone will provide $180,000 and the city of Santa Barbara has pledged $50,000. The Board of Supervisors is asked to authorize the funding as proposed.

Funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service will be provided via emergency funding. Therefore, if the debris basin clean-out, debris rack construction, channel excavation and hydromulching processes are not completed within 60 days, the money will be lost.

Aerial hydromulching will be applied by the county to about 1,200 acres of private land and local public agency land; affected private land owners must consent to this service by signing the county's Right of Entry agreement.

"Our piece of the project is about the same size (as it was after the Gap fire)," said Mr. Fayram. "The Forest Service piece is going to be different; it's something much less."

The U.S. Forest Service has proposed about 300 acres of hydromulching and is pursuing a contractor. The process was completed by Western States Reclamation Inc. of Frederick, Colo., following the Gap Fire; Despite concerns raised over the issue of contaminants in the mulch mix used then, the county public works officials were satisfied with the job.

The Board of Supervisors is being asked to authorize a waiver of the bidding for the service and to execute an agreement with Western States Reclamation not to exceed the estimated $4.6 million cost.

A year ago this week, a $4.8 million aerial hydromulching operation in the Gap Fire burn area began. Officials then described the material as an all-organic mixture of recycled paper and wood fiber, water and a binding agent made of guar gum, which is a plant-based substance commonly used as a thickener in foods.

The mulch did not contain seeds or fertilizer, but it did contain an organic green dye to help pilots monitor application.

As it turns out, the mulch also contained plastic.

In the face of questions over such contaminants being dropped on local hillsides and where it could end up, the Public Works Department agreed to specify 100 percent plastic-free mulch mix in the future.

"We're confident we can avoid those problems again," said Mr. Fayram.

The Jesusita Fire burned more than 8,700 acres in the mountains above Santa Barbara and Goleta.

Other drainage measures included in the Emergency Watershed Response Plan include the monitoring and removal of vegetation from the debris racks and removal of debris plugs and accumulated sediment deposits from within the stream channel in the urban areas.

Sandbag distribution centers will also be established, and officials have pledged to make information available to the public about the risk of various hazards related to the fire's damage.

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