Prison crews are back in Tonto Creek clearing dead and down vegetation that clogs the creek and diverts floodwater toward residential areas.
Work started Tuesday morning and should last at least several weeks, according to Michael O’Driscoll, Gila County Health and Emergency Services director.
Cleanup crews will not work on the dikes or remove sediment in the creek; work the county had done earlier this year.
Creek work halted when the mating season of several endangered species that call the area home began.
With that passed, the county has the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s blessing to begin vegetation removal work — as long as it does not disturb critical species habitat.
Crews will now remove dead undergrowth around the base of trees that diverts the flow away from the center.
While clearing work is starting again, at least one resident says crews should also work on the dikes. Leo Coombs said the county did a poor job repairing a levee that failed several years ago. With the repair work on the levee substandard, Coombs believes floodwaters will surely topple it again.
Coombs says the county lied to residents when it promised it would go back and work on the dike again.
However, Gila County Supervisor Mike Pastor said the county did what it promised by adding new rock to the Roosevelt Gardens East dike. Now, the county is waiting to see if the repair work holds.
Coombs says it could be too late then.
Earlier this year, the Army Corps of Engineers issued the county a permit to replace missing riprap on the face of the dike.
Workers placed angular rock by hand to assure no stones rolled onto nearby willow trees, where the protected Willow Flycatcher lives. The county bought 600 yards of riprap from a road project near Miami, enough to replace the missing stones on the face of the dike and allow for a two-foot ribbon on the top, said Gila County Public Works Director Steve Stratton during a March Gila County Board of Supervisors meeting. Supervisors approved $40,000 to complete the work.
Coombs believes the work only fixed half the problem.
“It won’t hold at all,” he said. “They stopped 300 feet short. They needed to make it twice as thick and three feet thick at the top.”
Pastor maintains the county did as promised. “What we did to the dike is what we had planned to do,” he said.
Pastor says residents were originally pleased with the work, but now want more. “We want to try and finish this project as we had scoped it out and see what happens and see if it helps,” he said. “Hopefully, we don’t get a serious flood like last year.”
Asked if he thought the dike could hold during a flood, Pastor said he does not know.
“I am not a hydrologist specialist so I would not want to make a guess,” he said. “Hopefully, it is going to hold ... We think we have done a good job.”
During a 100-year flood, no levee may be big enough, he added. County supervisors may revisit the dike issue at an upcoming meeting, Pastor said. In the meantime, prison crews should begin work soon.
When vegetation work started in March, crews had until March 31 to finish due to nesting times of endangered species.
Unfortunately, the county ran into issues with the Globe prison crew due to a planned execution, when all of the prisons around the state were put on lockdown.
That meant, only some of the debris between Punkin Center and A Cross Crossing was removed. “By the time we got everything approved and the prison crew came in, there was an execution and the prison went on lock down,” Pastor said.
Now, crews can work for several months, or at least until the $40,000 budgeted for the project is exhausted.
The crews cost between $1,300 and $3,050 each day, with the price dependent on the number of men used and where they come from.
The county used similar crews in 2009 to clean debris in the Six Shooter Canyon areas, which worked well, said Matt Bollinger, former health and emergency services division director for the county at a March supervisors meeting.
A lot of the debris in Tonto Creek has woven itself in between trees, blocking the flow and churning the flow out of the channel.
While the county would like to remove wood throughout the creek area in Tonto Basin, the county cannot work above the Bar X Crossing due to critical habitat issues, Stratton said.
In March, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service gave the Gila County Public Works Division permission to remove sediment from the creek to reduce the height of sandbars.
Crews removed sand 100 yards above and below Punkin Center and Bar X Crossings to reduce the height of sandbars to the level of the road crossings.
The excess material was then used to build up the shoulders along some roadways on the east side of the creek, Pastor said.
Coombs said despite the brush removal work, the creek is still jammed with trees.
Coombs says he is so dissatisfied with Pastor’s work that he is considering running against him in the upcoming election.
“I think he needs some competition,” he said. “I know a lot of people are upset.”
Pastor meets with Punkin Center residents the first Tuesday of every month at 5:30 p.m. at the Tonto Basin School.