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Where Montecito's mud is going, and how it's affecting the Pacific

Sunset at Carpinteria State Beach.
Sunset at Carpinteria State Beach.
Trevor Mattea via Flickr/ Creative Commons

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It's been more than two weeks since a mudslide swept through Montecito. While much of the mud remains, a lot of it is being moved to the beaches in nearby Goleta and Carpinteria. Tom Fayram is Deputy Director of the Santa Barbara County Public Works Department. He joined Take Two's A Martinez to talk about the cleanup effort.

The source of the mud, and where it's going

It's mud from our County public roadways, the creek channels and it's being located at areas in Carpinteria -- the end of Ash Avenue right at the ocean -- and also at the county park which is Goleta Beach.

Why Goleta and Carpinteria were chosen

Those places were chosen for the accessibility that we have, and they've been historically used for past emergency response efforts when you have to get rid of a large amount of sediment in a short amount of time because we're still in the middle of winter, so we need to prepare for another rainfall event.

How the mud is cleared from the beach

When you come back to the beach first thing in the morning, when we start again, there's no mud, so nature does a really good job of sorting that material out and keeping the coarse material on the beach where we want it and the finer material gets carried off.

What's in the mud

We've had a disastrous event here. Part of our recovery efforts are to quickly get our roadways open, and certainly in terms of the testing, we're starting to do testing now, but it has to be kept in mind that this material, if we did nothing, would end up at the beach. Most of the material came off the natural forest. We don't have industrial sites up there as the source of this sediment.

Santa Barbara County will move mud to the beach through February

Our permit allows us to continue this operation until the end of February, and then we will evaluate along the way. We are looking at other sources, and there are discussions about after the initial emergency is over, are there locations we can dispose of it in an upland area rather than at the beach.

When the beaches in Goleta and Carpinteria will re-open to the public

Our health department continues to test those beaches. It goes on to be tested and then the public health department advises when those beaches will be open.

With so much of the mud from this month's mudslides being moved to Santa Barbara's beaches, we wanted to know how it's affecting the Pacific Ocean. Larry Fay is Santa Barbara County's Director of Environmental Health Services.

Water quality off Santa Barbara County coast does not meet health standards

Since the storm and mudslides, we've had consistently poor water quality pretty much throughout the south coast area of Santa Barbara County extending from El Capitan State Park all the way to the county line with Ventura County. We sample for three groups of bacteria, and pretty much on the beaches that are exceeding state standards, we're finding they're exceeding for all three.

How the water off Santa Barbara County compares with other beaches

The day following the storm, we sampled from Gaviota to Santa Barbara about eight or nine beaches. All of them exceeded the standards. Later in the week, when we resampled, Gaviota and Refugio to the west were acceptable. With respect to the mudslides in Montecito, there was a continuing input of source from all of that debris, and we continue to see elevated bacteria.

What causes elevated bacteria in the water

In an urban area, there are all kinds of contaminants in the soil, on the soil, on the streets, whatever trash people leave behind. That all contributes to that first flush of the rain that gets into the ocean. What might be different in this case is the continuing levels of bacteria even though we haven't had rain in some time.

What's in the runoff and making its way to ocean

When you have an event like we had in Montecito and the upper water sheds, a lot of the homes are on septic systems. We don't know how many of those were damaged or failed and contributed to the runoff. You're going to figure that your flood waters are intermixed with sewage. As a matter of great caution, we tell folks to treat this as if it's contaminated with sewage.

If someone goes in the water, what could happen to them

Mostly you would be concerned about ingestion, so if you're swimming and get a mouthful, I would not be surprised if they experience gastroenteritis, same as if you got food poisoning.

Santa Barbara County's plan for monitoring the water going forward

We sample on a weekly basis normally. At Goleta and Carpinteria we have gone to twice weekly. We've increased the number of sampling sites at both locations so we have more detailed information about the ocean water quality. Those are the two beaches were storm sediments are being deposited.

When will the water be OK enough for the county to reopen the beaches

It depends if we get more rain, if more stuff comes out of the mountains, do we get  high tides or strong winds. All those factor into the water quality at those beaches.