Back and forth he goes through the swollen Tonto Creek.
George Ewing serves as a lifeline for Tonto Basin residents who find themselves stranded on the east side of the creek when it floods.
Ewing, 72, drives past the road closed signs on Greenback Valley Road Thursday and through the creek at what locals refer to as Store Crossing. He picks up residents and brings them to Punkin Center so they can shop or go to doctor appointments.
His favorite passengers are the children he transports back and forth to Tonto Basin Elementary.
He drives a retired five-ton military troop carrier to haul them. The Mazatzal Hotel & Casino several years ago donated the GI (general issue), as locals call it, to the community. With its high clearance, it can make it across the creek when many vehicles can’t, although some still try.
About 72 children attend the school, including 25 or so who live on the east side of the creek. He transports kids to the school each morning and brings them home at the end of the school day. He also takes the preschoolers home in the middle of the day and brings residents across throughout the day.
He’s been making the trip seven times a day since the waters rose recently.
“We’re getting more and more people,” he said. “I had to cut the adults off. I hauled the kids one load then I go back and get the adults and they come over and get their groceries, their mail or whatever they need to do, go to the doctor’s office.”
One couple wrote on Facebook that Ewing helping bring groceries to their elderly parents on the east side of the creek this weekend who were nearly out of food.
Ewing was born in Texas, but moved to the area in 1958. He hauled his own children across the creek in the 1970s in a 1946 single-axle GI. Now, he brings his grandkids and great-grandkids across. Five of the children attend Tonto Basin School and live on the east side of the creek. He also transports his cousins’ kids, as well as every child in the community that needs him. They’re all his kids, he says.
“There’s another GI over there, but he don’t take people,” Ewing said. “That’s his personal vehicle. Why do I do it? I do it because it needs to be done. Someone has to do it. Someone has to get our kids over.”
“There would be somebody else if I wasn’t doing this,” he said. “The thing of it is, the parents over there trust me with their kids.”
Safety is his main concern. When the conditions weren’t right Thursday, he canceled the trip.
“I cut the kids off this morning because I didn’t want to haul my kids,” he said. “Then I went across and found out it was safe and I called it back on, but there was a bunch of kids that didn’t show up, and I understand why.”
Ewing has a ranch on the east side of the creek and has an office for Ewing Land and Cattle on the west side of the creek.
He served on the school board for more than 20 years.
“If it wasn’t for George, some kids would miss weeks of their education,” said Chad Greer, Tonto Basin superintendent and principal. “It’s neighbor helping neighbor.”
This is Greer’s third year at the school. He said the creek didn’t rise enough at any time last year to need Ewing to transport kids across. Some years are just worse than others.
“I’ve read where in the past they’ve had people stranded over there for three months and families can’t get across,” Greer said.
The community continues to hope the county will build a bridge, but it doesn’t appear that will happen any time soon.
“They say it will cost up to $17 million to get a bridge,” Greer said. “I’ve written letters trying to get funding for it, but I don’t think we’re going to be getting that funding anytime soon.”
Barbara Jackson, a waitress at the Butcher Hook in Tonto Basin, has lived in Tonto Basin for about 40 years. She said the creek has been higher.
Still, the melting snow from the storm that dumped 31.8 inches of snow on Payson on Feb. 21-22 has resulted in a swollen creek that’s affected the restaurant’s staff and most businesses in this small community.
“We’ve got two workers stranded over there,” she said. “They’re getting cabin fever. Some got across and are staying with friends on this side.”
With fewer workers, those that can make it in to the popular restaurant are working longer shifts.
“We’re putting in the hours,” Jackson said.
Ewing would love to see a bridge built, but isn’t sure when or if that will happen.
“They started the bridge deal when it got so high back in the ’80s,” he said. “It’s closer now. But the county’s done everything they can and now it’s up to Congress. It’s tough to allocate $17 million for a bridge to service 500 or 1,000 people over there.”
Residents on East Evergreen Street were briefly evacuated from their homes Thursday morning due to a gas leak.
Police and fire responded to the 500 block of North Carefree Circle at 9:50 a.m. Thursday. As a precaution, they evacuated everyone within 300 feet of the home.
Alliant Gas quickly arrived at the scene and discovered a resident had cut through a propane line with a shovel while digging in his driveway.
An Alliant Gas worker clamped the line at 10:16 a.m. and residents were allowed to return home. The smell of propane lingered for some time after the line was sealed. No one was injured.
The resident who cut the line reportedly failed to contact Arizona 811 (formerly Arizona Blue Stake).
Officials say this is why you need to have your property marked for underground utility lines before digging.
Arizona law requires anyone who plans to dig to contact Arizona 811 at least two working days in advance (excluding weekends and state holidays) to have all underground utilities in the area located and marked.
Even shallow-depth projects can impact telecommunications, electric, gas lines or other underground facilities with the potential for injuries, explosions and interruption of service.
Arizona 811 is a non-profit organization that provides free marking services.
Call 811 Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. or create a ticket online any time at http://www.arizona811.com/ to have utilities marked.
For emergency requests when the Arizona 811 center is closed, you must contact the facility owners directly. Arizona 811 does not accept utility-location requests by e-mail, fax or voice mail.
Arizona 811 employs a universal color code that designates specific colors for specific utility types, as well as proposed excavation sites and temporary survey marks. The colors include:
Arizona 811 also has mobile apps to access information anytime from anywhere. Download the app for free on Google Play or the Apple App Store.
Payson’s economy continues to grow, with healthy increases in sales tax, building permits, gas taxes and vehicle license taxes.
Payson’s January financial report reported an 18 percent increase in sales tax collections, which remains the town’s main source of income. However, perhaps two-thirds of that increase comes from the increase in the tax rate starting in October.
If you remove the tax rate increase, Payson’s doing just a little bit better than the 5 percent rise in sales tax revenue statewide.
So far this fiscal year, the town’s sales tax revenues have jumped $900,000 compared to the same period last year — about 58 percent of the total fiscal year.
The sales tax bounty has allowed the town to set aside $600,000 to bolster pensions for police and fire, necessary because the value of the trust fund plunged during the recession and hasn’t yet fully recovered.
The town has also resumed normal street maintenance — after skipping the roughly $600,000 investment in annual street maintenance for about seven years, a full maintenance cycle.
Moreover, the town has started making up deferred capital spending. That includes $165,000 for new police cars. The jump in sales tax collections will also cover a $200,000 transfer to the water department to repay a loan to the general fund made years ago.
Payson also plans to add three positions to the fire department, both to deal with the need to manage dangerously overgrown yards throughout the area and to reduce reliance on firefighter overtime to cover shifts.
Payson’s general fund spending totals about $19 million annually, with about two-thirds going to police and fire.
The town also budgets about $6.7 million for the water department, with money coming from water bills and impact fees.
The water department budget is higher than normal because the town is still covering the extra costs of completing the $54 million C.C. Cragin pipeline.
The revenue sources for the town’s general fund budget includes $12 million in sales taxes, $2 million in state-shared income taxes, $685,000 from property taxes, $1 million in vehicle license taxes, $1.6 million in state-shared gas taxes and $330,000 from the bed tax.
The town also collects about $100,000 annually in fines, $773,000 for licenses and permits and charges $837,000 for various services.
If you include all of the town’s budget categories, they total $42 million, but that includes a couple million in grants the town might not actually receive, improvement districts and other categories.
The strong sales figures put the town in a good position heading into the budgeting process, said the town’s Chief Fiscal Officer Deborah Barber.
“As the finance department begins the budget process for fiscal year 2019/2020, we continue to be optimistic. We will be working to re-establish financial policies that have been unattainable during the recession and the years of slow recovery that followed,” she wrote. “A big piece of the budget puzzle will be the capital budget and exploring capital needs that have been long-delayed.”
The town council will meet on March 5 to discuss priorities for capital items and provide town departments with direction for budget preparation.
She noted that the steady rise in sales tax revenue could slump in the next several months.
“Local sales tax revenue for the first half of the 2018/2019 fiscal year continues to outpace 2017/2018. However, we typically see a sales tax slump in February, March, and April — some years deeper than others,” she wrote. “With 58.3 percent of the year elapsed, sales tax revenue is currently at 59.62 percent of the total annual budget for sales tax receipts,” she concluded.
Most of the town’s departments remain comfortably under budget.
The police department leads the way, having spent about $900,000 less than the budget calls for so far in the fiscal year. The fire department is about $500,000 under budget.
Add it all up and the various town general fund departments have so far spent about $9 million of the of the $11 million budget to this point in the fiscal year.
The town spends about $1.5 million every month, with personnel costs accounting for about two-thirds of the total.
Despite a warming station for the homeless being canceled, most found a place to stay during the recent storm.
When organizers dropped plans for a warming shelter, many worried where the homeless would go, but with the help of Doug Stewart, most found refuge.
“Some couch surfed. A few got put up at the Knights Inn by St. Vincent de Paul,” he said. “I think for the most part their needs were met. I have not heard of any deaths.”
To help, Stewart went out before the storm to deliver blankets and warnings.
“Some didn’t believe me,” he said. “(The weather service) always say these storms are going to hit and then two inches fall. This time they were right.”
Stewart said he and Mayor Tom Morrissey still have plans for a warming shelter.
“We’re not letting it go,” he said. “I would think the third time is the charm.”
Stewart and Morrissey will wait until next winter to try again. The extra time should give them the opportunity to educate the public and set up a tent in the right location.
“We have a property in mind, not near homes, but within a mile and a half of town,” said Stewart. “We have to manage some liability issues.”
It might surprise some, but older people face the greatest risk of losing their homes, he said.
“I do know some people, they have to be in their late 50s or 60s living in their cars,” he said.
Though no residents brought it up at Morrissey’s Mayor’s Forum on Feb. 26, Morrissey mentioned the homeless.
“We have people living in the woods ... they are hiding. We have been trying to get relief for (them),” said Morrissey. “We tried to put up a warming station, (but) we met with some controversy ... we’ve got a problem ... we’re going to try and do something.”
Payson’s 31.8 inches of snow Feb. 21 and 22 quickly melted last week and created plenty of runoff. With temperatures rising, Pine-Strawberry and Star Valley were all seeing a quick melt.
Tonto Creek rose to nearly 7 feet Thursday, Feb. 28 and was at 5.5 feet Monday, according to the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center of the National Weather Service.
Runoff on Tonto Creek at Roosevelt was at 1,876 cubic feet per second (CFS). The normal flow is 260 CFS.
Salt River Project spokesman Jeff Lane said the company was releasing water into the Verde River at the Granite Reef Dam Thursday morning to make room for the runoff.
He said SRP’s Verde reservoirs, Horseshoe Lake and Bartlett Lake, were both nearly full — Horseshoe at 93 percent of capacity and Bartlett at 89 percent, as of Monday.
“The Verde reservoirs are smaller than those for Salt River, so we need to make room,” Lane said.
Apache Lake was at 97 percent full.
He said Roosevelt Lake is at 54 percent of capacity, so it still has room to store another 800,000 acre-feet of water.
Lane said with the forecasts they are seeing, SRP expects Roosevelt to be at 75 percent of capacity by the end of the runoff season, which is from January through the end May.
“An interesting tidbit is the runoff totals from the Valentine’s Day storm was 108,000 CFS, which was more than the total during the entire 2018 runoff season, when we saw only 102,000 CFS,” Lane said. He added the 2018 runoff season was the driest in the 120 years SRP has kept records.
“The message I would like to get out to the public is that any recent burn scars have a higher potential for flooding due to the leftover hydrophobic soil and to avoid waterways in inclement weather. Better to be safe and avoid waterways until the snow has melted and ground dried,” said Michael O’Driscoll, director of the Gila County Public Health and Emergency Services Department.
To help residents deal with localized flooding, both the Payson and Pine-Strawberry Fire Departments planned to have free sand and sandbags available.
As of the morning of Thursday, Feb. 28, the PFD had sand, bags and shovels available at both the Main Street and Rancho Road stations.
Monica Savage with PFD said the department buys the sand from the town street department and had a dump truck load brought in Wednesday after several residents called.
The PSFD has bags available and Payson Concrete donates the sand.
The Hellsgate Fire District did not have sand and bags available as of press time. A spokesperson for the district said it normally works with the Gila County Public Works department to supply sand and the bags, but had not yet heard what the county’s plans were.
Tonto Basin residents were already dealing with runoff flooding in Tonto Creek late last week.
Carl Melford, Gila County emergency manager, said the A-Cross and Bar-X and Store Crossings were all closed.
The Gila County Sheriff’s Office put up barricades to keep motorists out of the creeks.
Pickups and SUVs are no protection from rushing floodwaters.
In 2017, flooding caused more deaths than any other weather hazard, according to the National Weather Service.
Most of these drownings could be prevented — if people better understood the force and power of rushing floodwater, officals say. Whether driving or walking, save your life, and the lives of your children and other family members or traveling companions — When you see flood waters ahead: Turn Around Don’t Drown.
More than half of all flood-related drownings occur when vehicles are swept away because their drivers attempted to travel through floodwater.
Many drive around flood barriers because they mistakenly believe their 3,000-pound (or heavier) vehicle is so heavy it will stay in contact with the road surface.
Keep these facts in mind:
• Six inches of water will reach the bottom of most passenger cars causing loss of control and possible stalling.
• A foot of water will float many vehicles.
• Two feet of rushing water can carry away most vehicles including sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and pickups.
The next highest percentage of flood-related deaths occurs when people try to walk through or walk too close to floodwaters. It may be hard to believe, but it’s true that as little as six inches of fast-moving floodwater can knock over an adult.
If you come to an area that is covered with floodwater, you will not know the depth of the water or the condition of the ground under the water. Roadbeds may be washed out under floodwaters. Never drive through flooded roadways. Whether driving or walking, any time you come to a flooded area, Turn Around Don’t Drown. This is true always but even more so at night, when your vision is limited.
Payson temperatures moved to the low 60s late last week, a trend predicted to continue. The warmer temperatures were expected to be accompanied by a 30 percent chance of showers through Wednesday, March 6, and a 70 percent chance for rain Friday, March 8.
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