Congressman Rick Renzi made a visit to Tonto Basin to explore options for a safe crossing of Tonto Creek.
This past spring, melting snowpack and heavy rains stranded the more than 700 residents living across the creek. More that 50 children missed several days of school and a man in need of medical attention had to be floated across the raging waters. Governor Janet Napolitano declared the area a state of emergency.
Renzi, Gila County Manager John Nelson along with County Supervisors Jose Sanchez and Cruz Salas met with Public Works Director Steve Stratton and a public works employee and longtime resident Lonny Cline to discuss a potential crossing.
Cline, who has lived on the other side of the creek for 49 years, has been instrumental in several rescues of stuck motorists and delivery of supplies and medicines to those stranded by the high waters.
"This is of great concern to me," Renzi said. "I had no idea that there have been fatalities here."
One man drowned trying to cross the creek at the largest of the four crossings in 1995. In 1996, an elderly woman and her husband were trying to get home and their truck rolled. He was disabled and when both fell into the creek, she tried to save him by pushing him across the creek. While he survived, she drowned in her efforts to save him.
As they sat around a table in the Butcher Hook restaurant, Cline and Stratton explained the issues and suggested some options for a crossing. Sanchez spoke of the ongoing bureaucratic barriers to building some type of safe crossing.
"The land belongs to the Corps of Engineers and we have an agreement with them to maintain the crossing," Sanchez said. "We have no authority, no jurisdiction but all the responsibility -- that's wrong."
Another obstacle has been the Forest Service, which also has jurisdiction over the area. They require an environmental impact statement to assess the potential effect on the riparian habitat.
Renzi pledged the monies to get the environmental impact study done as well as the first phase of the project.
"I want to get enough money not just for the study, but to get started on a first phase," Renzi said.
Renzi also mentioned some new transportation money that is available and that the project may qualify for funding from this source.
As Renzi was given a tour by Stratton and Cline of the various crossing areas, he spoke of his concern for the several school children who must forge high waters to get to the school.
"When the creek is running, I have my kids stay in the motel," Cline said. "But some parents can't do that and they don't want to take a chance crossing."
Renzi appeared sympathetic to residents who have, for years, requested a safe crossing.
"This will be one of my top five priorities," Renzi said.