While construction of a bridge that would secure a safe passage for Tonto Basin residents in the event of flooding is some time off, residents could soon see crews hauling away loads of sand and adding rock to a damaged levee.
Gila County officials are working on three projects that would help mitigate future flooding in Tonto Creek. Plans include armoring a dike with rock and removing sandbars and vegetation so the creek flows down the center and away from homes. Total cost of the projects is $100,000, officials said.
In January 2010, dozens of homes were flooded when 30-year floodwaters raced down Tonto Creek, overcoming a dike near Roosevelt Gardens East subdivision and entering the small community.
On top of property damages, some 2,000 residences were stranded on the east side of the creek for weeks with three shallow water crossings washed out by the raging river.
Through the decades, several people have died trying to cross the swollen creek, with dozens more rescued from their trapped vehicles.
After the most recent flood, the county removed dirt from the crossings and added a few rocks to the levee, but residents said that was not enough.
Fed up with the county’s lack of action, several residents banded together a year ago and demanded more be done to secure their properties.
Officials like Gila County Supervisor Mike Pastor and Public Works Director Steve Stratton heard these cries and wrote to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Forest Service and Federal Emergency Management Agency asking for their support in acquiring permits to fix the creek.
Starting sometime in late February or early March, crews have little more than a few months to enter the creek and do work since several animal breeding seasons start in the creek’s critical habitat, Stratton said Tuesday at a Tonto Basin meeting.
Protected species include the Mexican garter snake, willow flycatcher and spikedace minnow, said Kelly Jardine, district ranger with the U.S. Forest Service.
While protecting these habitats is crucial, Jardine said he and his staff are working with the county to move the project along.
“We owe a great deal of gratitude to Kelly,” Pastor said.
Past Forest Service officials were less inclined to work with the county, but since Jardine started eight months ago, he has worked well with us, Pastor added.
Crews will begin removing sandbars 100 yards north and south of the Bar X and Store Crossing as soon as a biological assessment is completed and temporary easement forms are signed by homeowners living on the creek.
The county is still waiting to get back some 40 temporary construction easements from homeowners. “If they don’t sign it, we will skip over their property,” Stratton said.
Crews plan to remove sand through April 1 when the wildlife breeding season begins. Work will then resume sometime in December. Crews need to remove some 30,000 to 50,000 yards of dirt, which could take some time. Crews will work six days a week from sunup to sundown, Stratton said.
Stratton asked residents at the meeting if those times would work for them.
“They can work 24 hours a day if they want,” said Leo Coombs.
The dirt will go to a pit for storage and eventually be used for shoulder construction and repair. Since it will be used for highway maintenance, Highway User Funds (HERF) are supporting part of the project.
The county is removing the sand islands under a loophole known as the “Tulloch Rule.”
Under the rule, the county can remove material from the waterway as long as the creek is not rechanneled or dredged and any fallback is minor.
“We are under a microscope with the Army Corps of Engineers,” Stratton said. “We cannot rechannel.”
The goal of removing the sandbars is to get the creek to flow straight instead of splitting and weaving throughout the creek bed.
On top of removing the sandbars, crews will repair the damaged Lake Vista levee. The Army Corps of Engineers granted a Nationwide Permit that allows the county to work on the levee through April.
Workers will hand place an extra 60 loads of rip rap to the face and top of the levee.
No rocks can fall into the creek and hit the willow trees, so work must be done by hand, Stratton said.
A resident with several acres in the creek asked if he could repair the section of levee on his property.
County officials said anything within the high water mark of the creek cannot be touched unless the Army Corps grants a permit.
Arizona state prisoners will soon begin removing dead and down vegetation in the creek. Removing brush will hopefully keep the creek flowing toward the middle.
Residents can pick chopped wood up free outside the crossings.
“Anyone can come get it,” Stratton said.
“Can you drop it off in my yard?” one resident joked.
Work continues on building a bridge between the east and west communities.
$2.7 million is currently funding design plans and location studies. The engineering firm Kimley-Horn and Associates is finalizing the design of the bridge that is expected to cost $23 million.
Earlier this week, a driller took 26 soil samples from the creek to determine where the support pillars will go.
Rumors that the bridge project has been scrapped are untrue, Pastor said.
“The work is ongoing,” he said.
By spring, all design plans should be completed with a start date for construction unknown.
“We won’t know until we get funding,” Pastor said.
Lobbyists are working on getting financial support for the bridge through the Safety Lieu Bill.