March Fossil Creek

The 708 Road to Fossil Creek is again eroding away despite efforts to stabilize it. Officials worry the internet cable, which runs through this area, could be severed if more damage occurs.

Don’t get too attached to your internet — or your cell phone for that matter.

The broadband cable serving all of Rim Country looks just about ready to wash out again — with rain pelting the region.

Floodwaters have again nearly uncovered the recently reburied cable along Fossil Creek Road, according to Pine-Strawberry Fire Chief Gary Morris and Mac Feezor, a member of a committee working on providing redundant, high speed internet to the region — which also provides cell phone signals for most carriers.

Last fall, erosion exposed the broadband cable along the road down to Fossil Creek from Pine, closed some three years ago by the Forest Service. After finally removing a boulder blocking the road, CenturyLink crews could get down to bury the cable.

However, they didn’t install a culvert. A succession of winter storms has now removed much of the dirt the CenturyLink crews piled on the crossing — although a jumble of larger rocks remains.

Morris — who has been pushing for years to convince the Forest Service to resume maintenance of the road — drove to the site of the washout and took pictures this week.

In an email, Feezor wrote Morris he had “found that the area was again washing away, and the hole was filled with large boulders.

“When CenturyLink covered the cable the last time, they did not repair the culvert. They just padded the cross-over and filled it all in with dirt and rock. Without drainage, when rain and snowmelt runoff cross the road, the only thing that can happen is another washout. Until we get the second run of fiber to the area, we are in danger of losing ALL communication in the Rim Country area. Internet, phones, cell phones ... all depend on the fiber being exposed to damage because of neglect of the Forest Service (no road maintenance) and CenturyLink (bad installation/poor repairs).”

Rim Country has repeatedly lost internet and cell phone service in the past several years as a result of cuts in the fiber optic line between Payson and Camp Verde. Rim Country has a single, relatively low-capacity broadband cable carrying the signal.

As a result, there’s no redundant loop to reroute the signal and maintain service when the line breaks.

The outages have caused at least one death, a driver who couldn’t get life-saving help after an accident during one of the outages, officials have said.

The lack of a signal has also cost businesses sales, forced the transfer of ill patients to the Valley and overshadowed Payson’s efforts to lure businesses and corporations to the area.

Payson Ranger District Head Ranger Debbie Cress said CenturyLink, Gila County and other agencies can quickly and easily get permits to drive down the normally closed road to make repairs on the washout site.

She said she hadn’t heard the cable looks ready to once again wash out. However, she said she’s pressing for a meeting with local officials on the problem of granting access to the Fossil Creek Road — both to maintain the cable and for rescue operations. Local officials have not set up a meeting time yet, she said.

“When it’s an emergency like a washout or a power pole break, we authorize immediate action. So there’s not a lengthy paperwork process. They had told us that the line was stabilized to their satisfaction,” she said.

She said reopening Fossil Creek Road from Strawberry remains a difficult problem, although emergency crews and utilities can use it now, at their own risk.

For decades, Arizona Public Service maintained the road so crews could reach the hydroelectric plant in the bottom.

APS reportedly spent $180,000 annually on maintenance to keep the road open. The power company turned over the hydroelectric plant and maintenance of the roads in the canyon to the Forest Service around 2005.

The Forest Service shut down the Fossil Springs Road about three years ago, saying erosion and rocks rolling down from the slopes above the road made it unsafe.

A Forest Service study estimated it could cost as much as $6 million to stabilize the slopes above and upgrade the road for public use.

The Tonto National Forest spends about as much each year to maintain a network of 5,000 miles of dirt roads as APS spent on the Fossil Creek Road down from Strawberry.

Cress said no one asked to use the road to maintain the cable.

“They’ve never asked us for any support in getting down to their line. I have reached out to Gila County supervisors and different folks to try to get a meeting at the end of March to talk about a variety of these topics and how we tackle the road as a bigger issue. They have not given me a date yet that they’re able to meet.”

She said she hopes to convene a larger group to talk about the problem of making the road safe and preventing erosion from eventually making it impassable.

“My next line of thinking is to reach out to a bigger group of people who would be stakeholders to talk about the stabilization needs. I was hoping to wait until I could talk to the local folks first, but I may have to move forward more quickly if I can’t reach folks at the local level,” she said. “We have offered to the county the ability to go in and do maintenance on the road if they want to. They have also expressed concerns about safety to their employees and liability concerns. There’s a reluctance to do temporary fixes without addressing those larger hazards — which is talking about more money and more effort, rather than just triage.”

Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin did not return a call seeking comment prior to press time.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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