Watershed project may save county residents from flooding

 
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BY WILLIAM BROWN —

 In late April, Coconino County broke ground on a project that will hopefully deter flooding, which has been plaguing hundreds of county residents since the Schultz fire in 2010.

Coconino County has been working with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) since the Schultz fire. The project is a series of EWP’s or emergency watershed protection projects.

One phase of the project is expected to be complete by June 30.

Amanda Sutter, public affairs specialist with NRCS, said the reason the project will be completed so fast is due to the nature of EWPs.

“The thing about EWP is that it’s a very, very fast-paced project because that’s their nature,” Sutter said. “They’re for emergency use. So, typically the deadlines are always really short turnaround because in this case there’s a lot of preparing the land and the environment for the upcoming rainy season. They’re trying to get those things installed so they don’t have to worry about flooding and erosion in those specific areas that they’ve identified.”

Liz Archuleta, Coconino County’s District 2 supervisor, said the damage from the flooding has been getting progressively worse since the fire.

“As you know, we had the Schultz fire in 2010 and since then we’ve had multiple flooding events,” Archuleta said. “With every monsoon season that we have, the neighborhood gets devastated and properties get devastated by flooding.”

Archuleta also said the county hopes to have a phase of the project done before the monsoons hit this summer.

“Basically, we’re going to be putting together a series of ditches and canals and very natural channels throughout the neighborhood,” Archuleta said. “There’s eight corridors that we’re planning and right now we’re embarking on five projects . . . It’s a very aggressive schedule but they’ll be completed by the time monsoon season comes around this year and our monsoon season usually goes from about July 1 through September.”

The Brandis/Thames EWP project will include sediment reduction measures on and a floodwater channel along the flood corridor.

The project will be designed to withstand a five-year impact and make the area safer for people during flooding. The entire channel will be constructed so re-vegetation will be easier and erosion will have less of an effect.

Virginia Jones, a state construction engineer with NRCS, said the problems started almost immediately after the fire and the NRCS has been helping since.

“One week after putting the fire out, they had a monsoon come through that flooded the entire area and there are multiple watersheds on the San Francisco Peaks that drain to the Timberline community,” Jones said. “They had seven different watersheds flood pretty much the whole neighborhood, so we had to get out there and do some exigency measures with sandbagging and concrete barriers to deflect floodwaters around people’s homes; it was a major problem.”

Jones also said the biggest problem areas face after wildfires is burned ground cannot hold water.

“That is the biggest problem because there’s no vegetation to absorb [the water],” Jones said. “Usually you have groundcover that slows the water down and the ground absorbs it but the soil will become so hot from the fire that it burns all the nutrients out of the soil too and it becomes sort of an ash and it’s not capable of recovering vegetation as quickly as you would think.”

The purpose of the EWP’s will be to redirect floodwaters to safer channels and further work is being done to reduce sediment flow from the mountain forests so that the mountain will be able to recover from the fire and once more absorb more water, reducing flow to lower areas.

Archuleta said the projects have been designed to fit the available budget, instead of planning for a project for a budget and obtaining the money afterwards.

“So, we’ve been able to get $8 million from the Natural Resources Conservation Service in federal funding and we’ve also been able to get about $4 million from FEMA and then the rest is a combination of the county and some state funding,” Archuleta said. “So far, that is the funding that we have. So we’re planning projects around that budget.”

Jones stated she believes the EWP can be used as a model for other states with similar problems.

“I think it’s a project that could lead the nation in restoration measures after forest fire,” Jones said. “I’m hoping this project will help other states realize what they need to do to implement a watershed project this large from a fire that burned 15,000 acres.”

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