Rain expected this week may hamper Montecito and freeway cleanup efforts

Sonali Kohli, Matt Hamilton and Joseph Serna, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

A lawsuit filed on behalf of four Santa Barbara County residents accuses Southern California Edison and the Montecito Water District of negligence that contributed to the damage wrought by the Thomas fire and then the rains last week. The lawsuit was filed in Santa Barbara County last week and updated Tuesday.

The lawsuit alleges that one area of the Thomas fire was ignited Dec. 4 when, amid high winds, SCE-operated equipment "exploded and/or caught fire." The power company did not properly maintain its equipment and the vegetation around it, the lawsuit claims, and as a result the state's largest wildfire in recorded history created a landscape more susceptible to dangerous mud and debris flows.

"We understand that Cal Fire's investigation is ongoing, and it would be premature for SCE to speculate about potential litigation associated with the recent mudslides," Southern California Edison said in a statement.

The lawsuit holds the Montecito Water District responsible for some of the damage during last week's storm. According to the lawsuit, a water main running between two reservoirs ruptured Jan. 9 and released "between 8 to 9 million gallons into creeks in the area." Shutoff valves should have been activated automatically, but that system failed because of a power outage, according to the lawsuit.

Nick Turner, general manager of the Montecito Water District, confirmed Saturday that the 14-inch pipeline connecting reservoirs at the top of the district was washed out in six spots, releasing up to 8 million gallons of water kept in storage.

The pipeline once partly aboveground is now sometimes 50 feet in the air after the ravines beneath it washed out. Access is difficult -- and some crews have to reach it by foot, Turner said.

Turner said the pipes leaked very slowly and that it was at 4 or 5 p.m. on the Tuesday of the mudslides -- roughly 13 to 14 hours after the debris flows began -- when the reservoirs were finished emptying. He compared it to a slowly draining pool.

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Debris flows also knocked out a 100-foot section of the pipeline to Jameson Lake, which accounts for up to 40 percent of the area's water supply.

A Montecito Water District spokeswoman did not immediately respond Tuesday to requests for comment about the lawsuit.

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