Tonto Creek residents know they are in trouble.
With a forgotten levee, snarled creek bed and winter floodwaters surely on their way, residents know they will soon once again find themselves stranded on the east side of the creek, waters flooding their homes and eating away their property.
In January, residents and Gila County officials watched as a 30-year flood ripped through communities on the east and west side of the creek. The creek flooded dozens of homes, carried many away and gobbled up acres of private land.
When it was all over, the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied individual assistance. Residents had to make repairs on their own if they did not have flood insurance, which most lacked.
Now residents want to know why the county won’t build a better levee or rechannel the creek to remove the tangle of trees blocking the river’s flow. Residents are pleading for a return of cattle to keep the creek bed clear of new growth.
The county’s answer: Not our problem.
“I understand their frustration,” Gila County Public Works Director Steve Stratton said. “But our hands our tied.”
Even if the county wanted to, it cannot alter the creek, which has been designated a critical wildlife habitat and remains under the control of the Army Corps of Engineers, Stratton said.
“There is nothing more we can do, we cannot legally enter that creek,” he said. “We know what is going to happen, we know the damage is coming (to residents’ homes).”
Nearly 300 residents are affected by floodwaters, each as desperate as the county is frustrated.
Gila County Supervisor Michael Pastor said the county is caught in a Catch-22.
“We continue to look for ways to mitigate flooding,” he said. “Hopefully we find one, one day that works for all the agencies.”
East side resident Leo Coombs said he isn’t looking for a government handout, but “they won’t let us take care of it ourselves.”
“They will bend over backwards to protect the Willow Flycatcher, but they won’t bend half an inch to protect a person,” said resident Keith Godbold.
Residents complain the creek was altered when the county put wire cages in almost two years ago at the Bar X crossing. Tonto Creek is the fourth largest river in Arizona, following the Colorado, Gila and Salt rivers.
Coombs said the baskets were put in to divert the creek to the east away from Sleepy Hollow and other residences on the west side. Stratton said the baskets helped elevate the roadway and redirect the creek back into the channel.
Now, the water needs somewhere to go, said resident Jim Montgomery. Unfortunately, thick vegetation in the middle of the wide creek has dammed it up, forcing it farther and farther east.
Pastor said the county can’t do any construction or remove trees without the approval of the Army Corps of Engineers.
Years ago, cattle used to graze the creek, keeping the channel open. However, after the cattle were removed, the river returned to its natural state. At one time, Montgomery said he could look up and down the creek and see only a dozen trees. Today, a thick forest of cottonwoods and willows fills the creek.
“It was not like this when we moved here,” resident Barbara Godbold said of the now frequent flooding. “We didn’t have any problems because the cattle kept it clear.”
In the late 1990s, a Gila County supervisor did return cattle to the creek, however, the Army Corps of Engineers made him take the cattle out, Stratton said.
The cottonwood and willow habitat now returning to the Tonto Creek remains the most productive wildlife habitat in North America. Dams and water diversions have destroyed about 90 percent of that habitat type statewide.
Beyond cattle, residents said they would like to see rechanneling of the creek. A few tractors could clear a path to divert the water away from homes.
Coombs said he doesn’t want to alter the whole channel, just a small section upstream from homes.
However, the county said bringing cattle back in and rechanneling are both out of the question for now. The county applied for a federal grant to do a channelization study, but the money is hung up in Congress.
Currently, a levee built in the 1980s by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) on the east side of the creek is one of the only things keeping floodwaters from entering homes. Unfortunately, the dike was never supposed to last more than 10 to 20 years.
The county was supposed to use that time to find a permanent flood control device.
The NRCS has offered to help fund a new levee if the county will put up 25 percent of the cost. Stratton said even if they could find the money, they would also need to find a sponsor and their insurance will not currently cover a new levee.
In other words: a new levee is unlikely.
Pastor said just recently he began looking into assistance programs, which may cover the cost of an engineering study. Only after a study and approval from the Army Corps of Engineers could a levee be considered.
Godbold said he doesn’t buy that nothing can be done to the creek.
“The dike can be built, it is a matter of knowing who to ask,” he said. “No one wants to take ownership of that dike.”
In both the 2008 and 2010 floods, at least one of the levees was breached and badly damaged.
Each time, the county repaired the levee according to its standards, which many residents feel are inadequate.
Stratton said workers pushed new dirt in place and installed geo fabric, which should hold the levee together for the time being.
Coombs pointed to sections where the county has made repairs, but said they are incomplete. At one section, small, loose rock is pushed up to backfill the levee. Coombs said huge boulders should be added to fully shore up the levee.
Coombs pointed past a barbed wire fence where a huge pile of large rocks sit.
Coombs asked why those rocks were not moved a few hundred more feet and added to the levee.
Stratton explained those rocks were placed there for storage and never intended for the levee.
“They are not designated for anything,” he said, adding they would be used in the event of an emergency to protect a home or structure.
Coombs, like other residents, would like to see a new levee built and one that can handle 100-year floodwaters.
On the day of flooding in January 2010, Coombs said he stood on the levee with a friend and listened as water was crashing down the creek.
As he stood on the dike, he heard a tremendous bang, like an “astronomical toilet flushing” and knew the dike had broke.
As he and his friend ran to higher ground, they found themselves knee-deep in water in only a few seconds.
Coombs watched helplessly as the creek flooded homes nearby, eventually reaching his home.
Although his residence was not badly damaged, his yard took months of work and thousands of dollars to repair.
But Coombs is one of the lucky ones. Other residents lost everything.
Stratton admitted the county neglected the levee for six years after he took over for the former public works director in 2002 because he didn’t know the county was supposed to maintain the levee. The county repaired the levee in 2008 with rock and dirt.
Some of this work was destroyed in the 2010 flood.
With flood damage rising, the county wants homeowners to consider a federally administered relocation program. So far, one homeowner on the west side of the creek, in the Sleepy Hollow area, has received $160,000.
However, the county does not want to force residents out, Stratton said. “We are not advocating that they leave.”
Most residents say leaving is not an option. “I’ll fight them tooth and nail,” if they ask me to leave, Godbold said. “I love it down here.”
Barbara Godbold said buyouts adversely affect property values.
Matt Bollinger, with Gila County Emergency Management, said he has been instructed to help the residents of Tonto Basin anyway he can, including the relocation program.
“Relocation is not the only option,” he said, residents can also elevate their homes.
Nine applicants are currently in the queue for relocation.
The relocation process can take two years to clear. When the process is complete, the county is charged with removing the structure and maintaining the property so nothing else is built.
The catch is homeowners have to have National Flood Insurance (NFI) to qualify for the program. In addition, homeowners have to have NFI to qualify for assistance from FEMA after a flood.
Bollinger strongly encouraged residents to get NFI, but admitted most residents are on a limited budget and cannot afford the often-expensive insurance.
With so much flooding, new construction near the creek is now limited.
Since FEMA remapped the area, changing the location of the floodplain and floodway, new homes have to be built according to grade. If a homeowner wants to build a new home near the creek, they must elevate it.
One new home near Coombs’ house will sit on eight-foot-tall concrete pilings, towering over the neighbors.
Coombs said he is outraged to see the county is still allowing people to build, especially in such a high flood area.
With more flooding expected this year and a bridge project on hold until an environmental study is complete, the staff at Gila County Emergency Management are ready to open an assistance center when the crossings close.
Last year, staff worked for months to bring food, medication and mail to east side residents several times during the week.
Without their assistance, many residents would have been stranded when the creek inundated the crossings. The county uses a retired military GI to haul supplies over.
“We have supplies stockpiles and a plan in place,” said Debra Williams, risk analyst with Gila County Emergency Management.
“Residents know they should be prepared,” she said with their own supplies.
“We do our best to make sure they have shelter, food, mail and medications,” Bollinger said. “We do everything we can during an emergency.”
A four-person road crew is prepped and ready for the rainy season and Bollinger and his team is ready to move when residents need assistance.
“We are monitoring the situation (in the creek) constantly,” Pastor said. “We are prepared for it (flooding).”
Road crews maintain the crossings and when it begins to flood, take preventive measures to prevent damage to homes.
However, the minute the county enters the creek and begins doing work beyond the road, it must apply for federal permits or face severe ramifications, Pastor said.
With the county’s hands tied in bureaucratic rope, Pastor and Stratton urged residents to write letters and form their own flood control district.
Residents can also voice their concerns monthly at a meeting held at the Tonto Basin school. The meetings normally take place at 6 p.m. Check the county’s Web site, www.gilacountyaz.gov for more details.