Coconino County received millions for flood mitigation — but the dangers aren't over
County and federal officials say they’ve prepared regions of Coconino County that were hammered by flooding last year. And they’re relying on millions of dollars from the U.S. government to help.
Against a backdrop of homes being repaired, a massive channel being scraped out of rock and soil and silty sediment from last year’s flood as far as the eye can see, Coconino County officials stressed they are racing against time to protect properties northeast of Flagstaff devastated by last year’s Tunnel and Pipeline fires.
"We are underway now with a significant number of projects. $35 million is slated to be constructed this spring of the total $90 million," said Lucinda Andreani, the county’s flood control district director.
Those $90 million were what the county’s flood district was approved for in Congress’ omnibus appropriations bill last year and was supported by both of Arizona’s senators.
Areas of Coconino County faced nearly 50 floods in last summer’s monsoons. Officials estimate that $1.3 billion worth of property was threatened. On the flanks of the San Francisco Peaks, workers are restoring alluvial fans that were destroyed. And below that work on the mountains, they are scraping out channels to keep whatever water may come down from devastating homes here again.
U.S. Sen, Mark Kelly described the challenges here as an engineering problem to be solved.
"We do the same thing every year and we expect a different result. And we shouldn’t," he said.
Kelly said he hopes a bipartisan wildfire commission he created with Congressman Mitt Romney will introduce new ways of approaching firefighting in the future.
"The root cause of it is two fold: it's a climate change issue but also, how do we fight these fires every fire season; maybe we can do a better job," Kelly said.
Andreani, who serves on the commission, said one challenge has been to receive fast help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, known as FEMA, which designed its assistance structure for areas hit by short-lived disasters like tornadoes.
"It doesn’t work where you have severe and repetitive flash flooding occurring throughout an entire season," Andreani said.
Instead the county turned to the Small Business Administration which offered disaster relief loans to residents impacted by flooding.
Between homes and State Route 89, contractors are digging out a massive straightedge ditch to channel waters away and keep it moving into the highways’ drainage system.
The channel will handle three to four feet of water moving at 30 feet per second.
Chris Dusza of Civil Tech Engineering is the engineer who designed the channel.
"It’s a whole lot of water, it’s enough water to go carry you down to the Verde River," he Dusza.
Work still needs to be done on at least two more watersheds that were destroyed last year. Andreani warns it’s not over yet.
"We haven’t gone into official fire restrictions yet, thanks to the heavy snow but I imagine that it will happen before monsoons arrive," she said.
For now, Coconino County residents are warned to keep sandbags and other short-term flood mitigations in place.