Through a persistent collective effort, it looks like Gila County may have finally gotten the message. The residents of Tonto Basin — especially those living on the frequently flooded east side — won’t take no for an answer.
Residents have refused to back down even though the county insisted nothing could be done to fix the clogged meandering channel or levees because the area is protected as a critical habitat for several species of wildlife and half a dozen agencies would have to approve any work.
Their leader of sorts, Leo Coombs, continued to send Gila County Supervisor Michael Pastor letters, demanding relief for nearly 300 residents who have watched their homes flood or nearly flood every winter.
At a meeting Wednesday, Pastor meet with residents at the Tonto Basin school like he does every month to discuss ongoing concerns.
Pastor reported that he had sent the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Forest Service, Federal Emergency Management and Game and Fish letters asking for help.
“My constituents who reside in the Tonto Basin, Punkin Center and Gisela area are becoming increasingly angry, concerned and frustrated about the lack of flood mitigation efforts concerning their properties and homes,” Pastor wrote in one letter to Ron Fowler, senior project manager with the Army Corps.
Pastor explained Tonto Creek continues to cut new channels, damaging homes and destroying acres of land.
Because no one is allowed to alter the creek bed, sediment has built up and is “continually altering the flood plain.”
Residents have had to sit back and watch as their their homes either wash away or are filled with silt. When many of these residents moved to the area 30 years ago, they went into the creek and took measures on their own.
Knowing all this, Pastor said a thick web of bureaucracy ties the county’s hands.
“Gila County does not have any preconceived idea as to the ultimate outcome of this effort, other than by working together we can identify an effective and lasting solution,” Pastor wrote.
Although no action has taken place, Pastor said he is encouraged by responses by several agencies that said they are willingly to sit down and talk.
Pastor, along with Gila County Public Works Director Steve Stratton and Matt Bollinger, with Gila County Emergency Management, got an up close look at the problems facing creekside residents Oct. 20 when they toured the area.
Residents told Pastor they only want to see a small area of the creek cleared of debris to take pressure off of existing dikes, including the Lake Vista levee.
They would also like to see the Lake Vista dike repaired fully and additional height added. This levee was damaged in the large 2008 and 2010 floods and again in late September.
“Strengthening and raising the dike height would be an extra measure of security,” said resident Bob Morrison, who was present at the Oct. 20 meeting.
Coombs pointed out that the Lake Vista dike is nearly two feet below its original height.
Stratton said he would look into what could be done to bring the dike up to its original height.
Pastor said he is taking a more aggressive approach and plans to go back to every government agency and ask for help. If they say they cannot, “I am going to go back and ask them to explain why,” he said. “We are trying everything and anything we can.”
It may take a letter-writing campaign to get their attention, Pastor said.
In the meantime, Pastor said 600 sandbags are available at the fire station. Residents are free to pick them up, although no sand is available.