If everything continues to go according to plan, county jail crews will resume removing dead trees and undergrowth from Tonto Creek in the Tonto Basin area this week as county road crews lower sandbars.
With any luck, the work will straighten out the unpredictable and erratic creek flows that have long plagued residents living on the banks of Tonto Creek. Later this month, crews will begin repair work on a dike damaged by floodwaters.
The flurry of work comes after months of pleas from residents for the county to help them protect their homes and property from floodwaters.
Although the county originally said bureaucratic red tape prevented them from entering the creek and making any changes, a new working relationship with the Forest Service and District Ranger Kelly Jardine has made it possible for the county to start work.
On Thursday, the Gila County Board of Supervisors supported the project with $128,100 in funding.
Crews have until the end of the month to work on the sandbars and remove the dead and down vegetation.
That window closes for the mating season of several protected species that call the creek home. Work on the Roosevelt Gardens East levee will continue, since the area falls outside the critical habitat.
County Supervisor Mike Pastor briefed more than a dozen Tonto Basin residents on the projects Thursday. These monthly meetings have kept residents in the loop and offered a platform for them to voice their concerns.
At Thursday’s meeting, residents were all smiles with the recent progress.
Resident Leo Coombs said he was happy with construction plans. Coombs became a leader of sorts last year when he led several walking tours with press and officials through the creek. Coombs said he planned to keep his mouth shut for a while — unless plans fell through.
The county is working on three projects in the creek.
The first is removing dead and down wood in the creek.
“The debris creates hazards during flooding and changes the flow of the floodwaters,” said Matt Bollinger, health and emergency services division director with Gila County. “The debris often creates sediment deposits outside the historical channel of Tonto Creek, diverting floodwaters into residential areas.”
For roughly 16 days, 40 wildland fire prisoners will cut and clear debris in the Six Shooter area. Residents can pick cleared wood up near the crossings.
The cost of the crews runs between $1,300 and $3,050 a day, with the entire project costing between $21,000 and $49,000, Bollinger said.
The Forest Service approved the project under the condition that all work stop by April 1 for species mating. Work can resume Dec. 1 when the season is over.
Jardine’s staff will work ahead of Department of Corrections crews, flagging sensitive areas.
“My staff will coordinate closely with the crew leaders so those sensitive area boundaries and disposal sites are known and understood by all,” Jardine said.
The second project is reducing the height of existing sandbars near two water crossings.
Using front-end loaders and 10-wheel dump trucks, crews will remove sand to an elevation not lower than the nearest road crossing. Work will take place 100 yards below the Bar-X crossing and 100 yards above and below the Punkin Center crossing, Pastor said.
The project is expected to cost $39,300 with crews removing 58,000 pounds of sand. The county will house removed sand at the Bluebird Pit. That material will eventually go toward creating shoulders on Cline Boulevard.
The third project, starting later this month, is shoring up an existing levee. Crews will add “shock rock” — a jagged rock that interlocks — to the dike’s face and top, Pastor said.
Steve Stratton, Gila County public works division director, told Pastor this project should take two weeks to complete and cost no more than $40,000.
During construction, all crossing will remain open.
Roughly 2,000 people live on the east side of Tonto Creek. A recent correction ran in the Roundup incorrectly stating only 300 people lived on the east side. However, according to county records, there are 824 addresses on file. The county multiplies the numbers of addresses by 2.5 for a population estimate of 2,060.
In other news, Pastor announced Bollinger would be leaving his job with the county at the end of May.
Bollinger is heading to Greenlee County to work in the health department.
Bollinger said he was sad to leave, especially after fostering so many close friendships with residents.
Whenever Tonto Creek flooded, Bollinger coordinated efforts to deliver residents mail, food, medications and anything else they needed. This often involved long days delivering supplies from the west side of the creek to east side residents.
Bollinger and his staff used an Army vehicle to drive through the swollen creek when no one else could cross.
The county has not yet hired anyone to replace Bollinger.