Heckman’s perspective: drought, fire, and recent rains

PhD student and Tague Team Lab member Chris Heckman shares his perspective on the effect of the recent rains in Santa Barbara in the wake of drought and recent fire:

After years of drought it felt a little odd to spend almost half of the days this month inside because of rainstorms; I mean it is sunny Santa Barbara after all! Luckily, being a hydrologist meant it was an exciting time to go witness how I had been imagining the landscape transforming with water.

Even with an umbrella I got drenched on my way to school on Friday, January 19th. Rainfall rates reached an inch an hour and one gauge even recorded half an inch in one 15-minute segment. I was lucky to have just enough time before the bus came to snap a photo of the channelized Mission Creek just before it approached its max discharge of 574 cfs.

After getting to school, I convinced another student, Ty Brandt, to go for a drive to explore other portions of the watershed. It was beautiful¬¬—streams that have been dry for years were raging torrents with water crashing over boulders and rocks, creating waterfalls seemingly everywhere, and where there was fire, carrying large amounts sediment downstream.

On Sunday I went to check out the Santa Ynez River between Gibraltar and Cachuma Reservoirs. You could see the river was muddy and transporting large amounts of sediment almost definitely from the recent Rey Fire. From a previous trip this month, I saw that there was up to 2 feet of sediment lining the river channel for miles.
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On the front side of our mountains heavy rains in the Sherpa Fire area produced a mudslide that took out several homes and many vehicles in the El Capitan drainage. From the air you could see long plume of sediment being redistributed down the coast with the currents.

Even with the 15 inches of rain this month so far we are still are still in an extreme drought locally, as determined by the U.S. Drought Monitor. The Friday rainstorm amount exceeded the predicted amount, which made reservoir operators excited for the prediction of an even larger storm on Sunday. Unfortunately the Sunday storm was over predicted and rainfall amounts were about 1/3 of expected. Gibraltar Reservoir has filled and is starting to spill water down to Cachuma, however the capacity of Gibaltar is only 5,272 AF compared to Cachuma’s 193,305 AF. Currently Cachuma is sitting at around 12% full so we are sill in need of much rainfall this year!
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A lot of people have asked me if the drought is over, given the rainfall and snowfall in other parts of the state. I like to respond with, “For how long?” I think its important to note that California is, hydrologically, a land of boom and bust. Sure we may get a lot of rainfall now, but lets remember that drought is all but guaranteed again in our near future.

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