Residents Stranded By Tonto Creek

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Time and again, the residents on the east side of Tonto Creek have been stranded by the creek's rising waters.

Two people have lost their lives, and countless have been at risk attempting to cross the creek during high waters.

After years of asking Gila County officials to put in an emergency crossing, their pleas continue to be ignored.

Brenda Straw and her husband, Joe, have lived on the other side of the creek for the past 12 years and have seen the tragedies resulting from the treacherous crossing.

"In 1995, a man was killed here," Brenda said, pointing to the largest of the four crossings that flood during and after a storm.

"In 1996, an elderly woman and her husband were trying to get back to their home and their truck rolled," Brenda said.

The woman's husband was disabled and when both fell into the creek, she tried to save him by pushing him across. While he survived, she drowned in her efforts to rescue her husband.

During the latest storm in March, a resident had a stroke. Lonny Cline, a heavy equipment operator employed by Gila County, who has lived across the creek the past 49 years, assisted in the rescue effort.

During his interview with the Roundup, Cline was crossing the creek to deliver food and medicine to those still unable to get across.

"I'm bringing food and medicine to some people who can't get across," Cline said. "There's a kid who has cystic fibrosis and needs medicine every 10 days and his parents can't cross the creek."

When the stroke victim needed medical attention, the cloud cover precluded the use of a helicopter and the ambulance could not get across the creek.

Children have been forced to miss school because of the danger their parents face trying to negotiate the water.

About one-third of the children attending the Tonto Basin School live on the other side of the creek. During this past storm, many of them missed nearly 10 days of school.

Elderly residents, many of whom depend on medications, have been at risk, and those trying to supply food and medications to the stranded have put themselves in danger.

A press release from the Gila County Sheriff's office, dated March 10 said, "Estimates are between 500 and 800 residents have been stranded for nearly two weeks. A few brave souls in high clearance vehicles have been able to negotiate the swift running water, however, the sheriff's office doesn't really advise this and wants to remind anyone who tries this is doing so at their own risk. Be careful out there."

Longtime residents recall the more severe flooding of 1993.

"We, fortunately, were on the other side when the creek rose," Straw said. "We couldn't return to our home for 27 days."

During that time, helicopters had to make food and medicine deliveries to those unable to cross the creek for nearly a month.

While many of the residents were born on homesteads across the creek, some residents who chose to live there were completely unaware of the potential flow of the creek and five years of drought lulled people into assuming that the crossing would be passable.

"There were some people awhile back who bought homes and weren't told by their Realtors that the creek flooded," Straw said. "That's not the case anymore."

It is unknown exactly how many people live across Tonto Creek, but a recent petition for an emergency crossing had nearly 500 signatures.

The "Store crossing", "A crossing" and "X bar crossing" are the names given to the various points at which the creek can be crossed. The store crossing comes out closer to the store and the school and is the most convenient, yet the narrow convergence of the water makes it the most treacherous.

One alternative does exist to crossing the creek. It is a road known as Forest Road 60 or A Cross road, that leads up to the steep side of the Sierra Ancha mountains and eventually hooks up with the Young road. Travel time is more than three hours and even 4-wheel drive vehicles have difficulty in ideal weather conditions.

Residents say the request for an emergency crossing could be satisfied with a concrete slab or culvert. They say they are not expecting anything as costly or extravagant as a bridge, just some type of structure that could divert some of the water and deconcentrate the strength of the current.

"We need some kind of crossing," Cline said. "We all know that a bridge is a long ways off, but we need to get a crossing for these people so they can get to work and school."

Cline has seen his fair share of "uneducated people" who don't know how to cross water.

"Last night I was bringing my boy home from basketball practice and it was dark and there was a lady about to cross in her van," Cline said. "I went up to her and told her not to cross. There were five kids in that van! What would've happened if she had got in there in the dark with five kids -- bad news."

"I've crossed this creek when the waters running up on my windshield, but I know how to cross it," Cline said. "I've seen two brand new Chevy 4x4's dead in the water and there's only one way to get out -- you hope someone comes by and pulls you out."

When asked why no action has been taken, residents seem to be confused themselves. According to those who spoke to the Roundup, there are several different agencies ranging from the county and Forest Service to the Bureau of Land Management who are involved in the issue and there is no one agency in charge of the riparian area.

"It's not just the county that's not doing anything, it's a little bit of everybody, the forest service, the state," Cline said. "I think the county would do it right now, it's just that you have this agency and that agency. They all just need to figure something out and get it done."

Cline said that residents are not expecting anything major.

"To the people that live on the creek, it's a simple solution," he said. "Just put some pipes in and we'll cross the creek. We're not asking for nothing else."

County Supervisor Ron Christensen said Gila County has been exploring the issue of a crossing for the past 15 years. Since the latest flooding, County Supervisor for Tonto Basin, Joe Sanchez, visited the creek to witness the flooding.

"That road belongs to the federal government and we have been asking Congressman Renzi, like we have the last several congressmen, for assistance," Christensen said. "We haven't seen any action or interest from the feds."

Christensen explained that culvert and pipes are not an option and that an all-weather bridge that will cost from $5 million to $8 million is what is required.

"The original site for the bridge has expanded because of the meandering creek," Christensen said. "We need to find a location farther up the creek that is more narrow."

Gila County has already set aside $1 million for the project, but needs the support and funds from the federal government before the project can proceed.

"If the county had the control and the funds, it would have been done," Christensen said. "But whenever you are dealing with federal land and different agencies there are tremendous hurdles in doing anything."

"I suspect that at some point in time it will happen, but with issues like homeland security and forest health, it has taken a lower priority," he said.

Christensen said the county will continue to assist those living across the creek with their heavy equipment capable of crossing the high waters.

For now, residents keep a close eye on the weather, stock up on supplies, and continue to risk their lives and vehicles crossing the creek.

"We just know how to survive here," Cline said. "I do whatever I can do to help whenever I can. You'd do the same thing if you lived here. It don't matter -- you just do it."

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