Community Calls For Bridge Where A River Runs Through It

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It's been needed for more than 25 years, says Tonto Basin Realtor Margaret Rambo.

With the rain this week, Tonto Creek has risen once again, and so has the demand for a bridge across it.

"We've been promised four times in the last 25 years that a bridge will be built over Tonto Creek," she says. But those promises have all been broken, leaving residents at the mercy of the temperamental creek and its two low-water crossings.

Rambo has been on the community's bridge committee for a number of years, but she says every attempt to have a bridge built over the wide, treacherous waters of Tonto Creek has been stonewalled.

Tonto Creek runs through Tonto Basin southeast of Payson, and it bisects portions of Punkin Center and surrounding neighborhoods. When the creek rises, about 600 residents on the east side of the creek are cut off from the community they can't go to work, they can't shop for food, they can't go to school, they can't pick up medication or see a doctor.

Those who attempt to cross the broad-shouldered river when it's flooded risk losing their lives, as did two residents in the past five years who drowned while fording the 1,400-foot gulf between banks.

The problem, according to Gila County Dist. 1 Supervisor Ron Christensen, is that approval to build the bridge, and the money to pay for it, must come from the federal government because the area falls under federal jurisdiction.

"We've been after the federal government for years to help us, and they've never responded to our requests," Christensen says. "And the problem has just gotten worse. When we first started talking with the federal government, the creek was only 400 feet across. Today, it's 1,400 feet across."

Wading through the government red tape has become as difficult as crossing the swift-moving stream. Christensen says he's been dealing with every federal agency from the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture to the Fish and Wildlife Department and the Department of Interior.

"There are plenty of agencies, and each is extremely contradictory," he says. "It's a complicated maze."

And that bureaucratic maze has blocked development in the basin area, the supervisor says.

"There's 1,200 acres on the other side that are subject to development," he says, "but there has to be a better way to cross besides those two low-water crossings. Environmental concerns regarding the habitats of the willow flycatcher and whatever else Fish and Wildlife can promote in terms of protection has caused the creek to widen."

While county officials continue to lobby for federal funds, Rambo says the Bureau of Reclamation has spent a little money to further complicate matters.

"They spent millions on the Indian Point Campground on the other side of Tonto Creek," Rambo says. "The water doesn't even come up to the campground, and when the water rises, you can't get to it."

Rambo says she and her committee have been soliciting help from Representative J.D. Hayworth's office, but so far, nothing has gelled.

And with more storms expected to hit the area this weekend, folks in Tonto Basin have once again turned to Gila County for help.

"The Sheriff's Office has been stopping drivers and issuing citations for people attempting to cross the creek," Rambo says. "This has been going on for years. We even had our school children write letters to President and Hillary Clinton a few years ago. It took two years to get any kind of response."

Christensen says his pleas to Washington have also been largely ignored.

"I honestly don't think we'll see any assistance until there's a new administration," he says. "We've gotten absolutely nowhere with the Clinton administration.

"Until a new White House is in place, we'll continue to pressure and push," he says. "We need to get this bridge built before anymore lives are lost."

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