After a solid year of asking the county to do something to protect their homes from floodwaters, east side residents of Tonto Basin could finally see some relief.
On Monday, the Gila County Public Works Division announced it is working on three projects that would mitigate future flooding.
One includes using Arizona state prisoners to remove dead and down vegetation in Tonto Creek and another capitalizes on a loophole that might allow for the removal of several sand “islands.”
The county has contracted with WestLand Resources to obtain a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for replacement of missing riprap on the top and face of an existing dike near Roosevelt Gardens East subdivision.
Last January, floodwaters severely damaged the dike and in September, water further cut away at the levee.
Residents say the levee sits two feet lower than its original height. The damaged levee and a clogged creek bed could cause further flooding.
Last winter residents watched in horror as floodwaters filled dozens of homes with water and silt. Unfortunately, for the 92 property owners adjacent to Tonto Creek, they can do little to protect their homes.
Residents and the county have found their hands tied by bureaucratic rules.
The creek is protected as a critical critical habitat for several species of wildlife. Numerous government agencies would need to approve any work, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Forest Service and Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Gila County Supervisor Mike Pastor. In the meantime, the creek continues to cut new channels and build up sediment.
Several weeks ago, Pastor sent letters to the Corps of Engineers, Forest Service, FEMA and Arizona Game and Fish. The Forest Service and Army Corps responded and a project allowing for the removal of dead and down wood is in the works. Once county staff has identified areas, the Forest Service has agreed to contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and utilize their biologist to work through the process of complying with application regulations for the removal of vegetation.
“If this is approved, Gila County staff will prepare temporary construction easement documents to allow Gila County or its agents to access these areas,” according to a press release.
The county would use state prisoners from the wildland fire crew to remove the vegetation.
The county is also in talks with the Corps of Engineers to remove sandbars/islands from the creek under a controversial loophole known as the “Tulloch Rule.”
According to WestLand Resources, the county wants clearance to repair and construct 10 flood control berms along several drainages.
Under the Tulloch Rule, the county could remove material from the waterway as long as the creek was not rechanneled or dredged and any fallback was minor. This would allow the county to sidestep the arduous process of acquiring permits.
The rule has been contested in several court cases and it is unclear if the county will qualify, however, the Corps of Engineers suggested the county apply anyway.
The rule does not apply to areas with wetlands. Two of the 10 berms — at Punkin Center and Gisela — are located near wetlands and would not qualify for the Tulloch exception.
“County staff is in the process of identifying specific sandbars or islands for further discussion with the federal agencies involved in regulating these areas,” the press release states.