Tonto Creek floodwaters overturned Charlie Moring’s truck as he attempted to cross, killing him in 1995. Two years later, 74-year-old Joan Wood died after she and her husband, who survived, crossed the creek to buy groceries. On the way back, the couple confronted a rising creek that swept them away upon crossing.
Since the turn of the century, three more have died crossing the rising waters of a creek that occasionally traps Tonto Basin residents inside their beloved community.
Three crossings sporadically close when the graded dirt road turns into a creek that can cover a pickup truck. The one-time cattle ranching community is growing in population, and many of the newcomers aren’t aware that a quaint dirt road sometimes turns into a “raging river,” said resident Barbara Godbold, whose Tonto Basin lineage is rooted.
However, if plans proceed flawlessly, construction on a $23-million bridge could begin in two years, Supervisor Tommie Martin said recently after the board approved an agreement with the Arizona Department of Transportation for $3 million to design a safe crossing near Punkin Center.
The project will still need to win final federal approval after the design is complete.
The agreement, which caps 50 years of effort, could change the lives of Tonto Basin residents.
“It will provide access to the outside world, so to speak,” said Godbold, who helps run a phone tree through which news bulletins travel during the occasional floods.
The creek doesn’t flood every year, but residents can lose easy access to food, doctors and mail service for months at a time when waters do rise.
All three crossings closed from Dec. 8, 2007 to March 10, 2008, however a two-wheel drive vehicle couldn’t cross until April, according to information from Godbold.
County traffic counters showed 760 vehicle crossings per day in 2003. Somewhere between 700 and 1,000 people are affected by the creek’s sporadic flooding, according to Godbold.
The county has established an emergency assistance center, which arranges for groceries and prescription deliveries after five days of closed roads.
For the last four years, students have crossed flooded waters for school on a 1967 military truck that the Mazatzal Casino donated to replace the previous 1943 two-ton ammunition carrier.
According to Godbold, residents have fought to build a bridge for almost 50 years. In 1985, residents filed a petition with 1,543 signatures to Arizona’s Secretary of State.
“This area does not have the clout of a bigger city,” she wrote in an historical narrative, adding that the small population makes the bridge hard for government agencies to justify economically.
In 2005, then-Rep. Rick Renzi earmarked $3 million in a federal transportation bill for design work. The money, however, carried a 20-percent match, which Martin said was unaffordable.
Then, in last May’s technical corrections bill, some of Arizona’s congressional representatives shepherded through a match reduction from 20 percent to 5.7 percent, or roughly $170,000.
Phase one — check.
Then comes the actual bridge, which could cost more than $20 million.
The current federal transportation bill expires this year, which means that if funding for a bridge fails to sliver into the new package, the bridge would need to wait at least another five years, until the next highway bill.
Martin says that if all proceeds perfectly, construction on the bridge could begin in two years.
Supervisor Mike Pastor said he didn’t want to return to his constituents without a signed agreement.
“I’d never get out of there alive,” he joked.
Supervisor Shirley Dawson said she was concerned with spending millions to design a bridge without addressing the underlying problem of a course-changing river.
Tonto Creek is slowly moving because of silt piling up in the riverbed from the Roosevelt Dam. As silt piles, water begins to flow differently. Homeowners in the floodplain may eventually have to move, Martin said.
Dawson said it might be cheaper to run a helicopter during emergencies than build a bridge.
Indeed, Godbold said one $3-million house in the area has a helicopter pad.
“When you can buy a helicopter and fly in and out, it obviously wasn’t an issue,” she said of the flooding.