Congressman Rick Renzi had some encouraging news last week for the people of Tonto Basin who have tried for 15 years to get a water crossing on the creek that traps 600 residents every year.
Renzi visited the area in June and promised residents the bridge would be one of his top priorities.
"We secured $150,000 for an environmental assessment and site selection for the Tonto Creek bridge," Renzi said.
Two people have been killed and countless others have risked their lives attempting to cross the creek during high waters. This past March, more than 50 children living on the east side missed 10 days of school and a man who suffered a stroke had to be floated across by rescue personnel. In 1993, residents were stranded for nearly a month when the creek rose. Helicopters had to fly in food, supplies and medicine to those trapped.
Residents who live across the creek have long requested some type of crossing, but environmental and financial issues, along with the fact that several different state and federal agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers and the Forest Service, have jurisdiction over the creek banks and the riparian area, kept discussions from resulting in any concrete action.
Renzi hopes he has pushed through that bureaucratic wall.
"Once you get the money for the study, you've begun the process for the next phase which is to lay the dirt and get the foundation," Renzi said. "I can bring in additional funding for the construction next cycle."
The money for the assessment was added to an energy and water appropriations bill that Renzi said is expected to pass in the coming weeks.
"There really is a need for a bridge," District 2 County Supervisor Jose Sanchez said. "The congressman thinks this is the best way to go about it."
Renzi said he is hopeful that the environmental study will not stall the process.
"I don't think they will find something. There have been a lot of studies in that area. Other than a few rattlesnakes, I don't know what's out there -- but that is for the experts to determine," Renzi said.
During his June fact-finding visit, Renzi was told that there was concern about an eagle, but it was closer to the lake and more than a mile away from the potential bridge site.
"If they find an endangered something, we'd have to find another site for the bridge," he said.
"There has to be somewhere there where this bridge can go in before we lose anymore lives," Sanchez said.
Sanchez said the discovery of a bald eagle nest scrapped plans for the bridge at one of the three crossing areas before.
"The environmental study has to be done," Sanchez said. "If you don't do an environmental impact study then midway through the project we'll have some environmental concern come up."
Gila County Public Works Director Steve Stratton and his staff have been working with Renzi to go forward on a bridge.
"We've given him traffic counts of people crossing the creek when it was dry," Stratton said. "We counted 760 vehicles per day."
Stratton agrees that an environmental impact study is a first and necessary step.
"We couldn't even apply for any other funds until this step gets done," Stratton said. "Once this is done and it gets the environmental clearance, the congressman has told me that he'll go back and try to get money appropriated for the construction of a bridge."
Stratton said Sheep's Crossing is the location he and his staff believe is most suitable for the bridge.
"It's the shortest span," Stratton said. "The geological formations lend (themselves) well to putting a bridge there. An environmental assessment will tell us whether we can put one there or not."
"The majority party recognized the substantial need, particularly as it relates to the children," Renzi said. "They were vital in helping me to convince the appropriators that I should get this project.
"The people have been asking for this for years and years and we fought tooth and nail to get it done," Renzi said. "A request that's been for years in the asking is finally fulfilled. That's what makes you feel good about what you do."
Sanchez is cautiously optimistic.
"It's going to take a lot of support," he said. "I am hoping we'll be successful this time."
"This is the most positive thing that has happened," Stratton said. "It's probably our best chance yet of getting a bridge."