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Pinal-area flood risk to be studied in hopes for new plan

by Lindsey Collom - Feb. 18, 2012 10:12 PM
The Republic |

The Santa Cruz River is an unpredictable neighbor.

For as long as Debbie Lewis can remember, its waters have sustained livestock on her family's land south of Casa Grande.

But the same nourishing flow can rage into a monstrous swell in the rainy season, flooding the main roadway and isolating Lewis' village on the Tohono O'odham Reservation for days at a time. At its worst, the Santa Cruz has swept past doorsteps in the 226-household community of Chuichu, damaging homes and decimating crops.

Lewis, a village chairwoman, prepares for every scenario.

"If we get a really hard rain, like several days in a row, we pretty much expect it to come, and we have to be ready," Lewis said. "I'm kind of like my mother that way, that's how she always was when I was younger. We have to be ready to leave."

What has been a way of life for scores of people living in the Santa Cruz watershed in Pinal County may soon change. A recent pledge by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has given momentum to flood-control efforts in the region.

The Corps of Engineers' Floodplain Management Services Program has been granted $150,000 for a study to calculate relative flood risk in the region, the results of which will eventually be used to help formulate a master plan for the watershed.

The watershed, which encompasses 8,600 square miles, runs through the heart of Arizona's fastest-growing region. A major flood today could devastate infrastructure, residential areas, schools, businesses and agriculture, according to a statement from the Lower Santa Cruz River Alliance, a consortium that has lobbied for flood control in the watershed since 2010.

"This is probably the biggest challenge Arizona has that nobody knows about," said Mark Killian, alliance chairman. "There are billions of dollars invested in this area. ... We've got to be able to divert this water."

His group has worked to give a unified voice to local government, tribal and business entities advocating for flood-control solutions in Pinal County. The alliance is focused on the section of river as it flows from the Pima-Pinal county line to its confluence with the Gila River about 10 miles northwest of the city of Maricopa.

The Santa Cruz River begins in southern Arizona and makes a 35-mile loop through northern Mexico before re-entering the U.S. near Nogales. In Arizona, it stretches north and west from the international line through a complex system of washes.

According to historical data, 34 major floods have occurred on the river since 1887. Six of the seven most damaging floods have taken place in the last 50 years.

All told, floods have racked up hundreds of millions of dollars in damage over the years. Far fewer people lived in Pinal when it was hardest-hit, but the threat remains, said Steve Bloch, alliance president. "We believe it's only a question of when, not if," Bloch said.

Lewis, the Chuichu chairwoman, still lives in the home damaged by flooding in October 1983. She was 18 and living with her parents when a pounding at the door at 2 a.m. alerted the family.

"It was one of the neighbors telling us one of the berms had broke and we needed to get out of there," Lewis said. "We rushed around trying to put everything up as high as we could. By the time we got out of our yard, which was about six to 10 minutes later, the water had already come through."

Lewis told Gov. Jan Brewer about the losses her family endured in a recent meeting of the alliance. Brewer was there to sign a proclamation in support of regional flood control.

One by one, dozens of attendees told the governor about the river's impact on their lives and expressed thanks for her interest. Edward Farrell, vice mayor of Maricopa, recalled his classes being canceled at the local high school in 1983 because of 4 feet of standing water.

Brian Betcher, general manager of the Maricopa-Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District, said a 1993 flood triggered $1 million in damage in his area.

"The Santa Cruz River has caused longtime damage, and if something isn't done, it will continue to do this," Brewer told the crowd. "I agree with you. It's time to get this fixed."

Alliance members say the Corps of Engineers study is the first of many things that need to happen before the problem is solved.

Sometime this year, corps staff will determine flood risk by collecting and analyzing existing floodplain-management data -- hydrology, hydraulic modeling and historical flood records, among others -- from county, state and local entities, said Kim M. Gavigan, manager of the Floodplain Management Services Program.

Gavigan said the risk assessment will not include recommendations on what should happen next. The corps will present the results to the alliance and "what happens from there is really up to the stakeholders."

"Once we get our study moving, we can work with the stakeholder to see what they want to do with the information," he said.

The latest developments have encouraged Lewis after years of feeling like "we're fighting for nothing and not getting anywhere."

"I think with this alliance, some people are starting to listen to us, not just us but also people off the reservation," she said. "And I hope everything goes in our direction to where we get the assistance."

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