When a public works team from San Luis Obispo County was called to help Montecito with a broken water pipe just days after destructive mudslides tore down the mountainside and into town, they had no idea what they were getting into.
Montecito Water District was faced with overwhelming damage to the city’s water system, limiting water sources and soiling supply to thousands of residents. Among the damage, a view from a helicopter had shown that a 19-inch steel pipe that moves water from Jameson Lake in the Santa Ynez Mountains to the city distribution system was broken.
But the Forest Service road used to get there was blocked by mudslides and large rocks.
“The damage was extensive. In an effort to get water back to the community, we needed manpower. We needed bodies, contractors and engineers,” said Nick Turner, general manager of Montecito Water District.
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So, less than 24 hours after employees from the city and county of San Luis Obispo arrived to help with nothing but day bags, they took the lead on the project and hiked 14 miles in and out of the backcountry. There they discovered two massive breakages, caused by a force so strong that pieces of steel pipe had been bent, sheered from their connections and carried hundreds of feet away.
Within two weeks, they had the road cleared, assessed the damage, equipment and material were moved in and the pipeline was repaired. Some workers camped by the work site. Some haven’t yet returned home.
The project wasn’t without hiccups, including when the federal government shutdown sent a federal biologist home. San Luis Obispo County sent their own, Kate Ballantyne, to fill the role to coordinate emergency permits.
“Our mission was to get them in running water,” said John Diodati, interim director of San Luis Obispo County Public Works Department.
Entering a disaster zone
Aside from mountain lions, bears and other forest critters, theirs were the first feet on the ground in the area after mammoth amounts of water, debris and boulders tumbled across the landscape recently burned in the Thomas Fire. As they climbed over the rubble of the disaster area, they discovered 30 slides on the road and saw boulders as big as 7 feet tall and wide in their path.
“The velocity of water coming downhill from the intensity of rain was just unbelievable to move that size of rock,” said John Austin, a county design engineer.
He hiked in along with Diodati, county water system worker Justin Smith and the dam-keeper for Montecito Water District, Alan Prichard. John Millar, a water supply operator with the city of San Luis Obispo, and Mike Boyce, a construction engineer, stayed back to work on clearing the road.
The pipeline that feeds into Doulton Tunnel, which runs through the mountains east of Montecito, was installed in the 1920s and in some places was suspended 5 or 6 feet above ground. The flood of water had reached that high.
A few miles into the hike near Juncal Campground, Smith discovered another break in the pipe that wasn’t visible from the helicopter. He found the broken stick of pipe pinned between two trees, covered with rubble, about 50 feet down from the pipeline route. At the upper break, near Alder Creek, the force of water had been so strong that a 40-foot piece of steel pipe had snapped off and had been carried 300 yards away, where it was covered with rocks.
“I’m sure people have seen on the news the devastation in Montecito, the community itself, and how cars were moved and houses were taken down, and this was no exception. The mudflows and rock flows hit a water-supply line in their way, and they took it out very easily,” Diodati said.
Back in water
The pipeline that crews from San Luis Obispo County fixed carried essential water supply to Montecito. Without it, the community had to rely on other sources that were not only limited, but expensive.
A notice to the public to boil water for safety was canceled as of Thursday for most of Montecito, a sign of victory in the sweeping efforts that went into repairing a broken system.
All told, in addition to the pipeline break, mudslides caused damage to a major transmission line in eight locations at creek crossings, 15 breaks to the main line, 25 hydrants sheered off and 290 water-service lines either damaged or leaking on properties.
Nearly all have been repaired with permanent fixes.
“The system is looking pretty good. All the help we’ve gotten has been incredible,” Turner said. “We accomplished about 10 years of work in about three weeks.”
Diodati said the task gave him confidence in San Luis Obispo County’s ability to coordinate with other agencies and quickly respond to a disaster that could hit home, like a major earthquake that could impact major supply lines.