Reclaiming Rio will pay off in many ways

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Arizona Daily Sun Editorial • April 30, 2015

The purple dashed line shows the proposed Flagstaff Urban Trail System alignment from Old Route 66 to Townsend Winona Road. The proposed trail will pass through areas where the city and the county are working to restore the Rio de Flag riparian area.

The purple dashed line shows the proposed Flagstaff Urban Trail System alignment from Old Route 66 to Townsend Winona Road. The proposed trail will pass through areas where the city and the county are working to restore the Rio de Flag riparian area.

When it comes to the Rio de Flag, Flagstaff can’t give the little ephemeral stream too much attention.

At nearly every twist and turn, the city and volunteer groups have lavished it with trails, holding ponds, marshes, interpretive signs and regular cleanups.

And if there are sections without those amenities, then there are plans to change that. It’s a far cry from when townsfolk referred to the “River de Flag” and used it to dispose of trash – or worse.

In recent decades, the portion of the Rio de Flag that runs through downtown has surfaced as a major flooding threat, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. But although the Corps has placed nearby properties in a 100-year-floodplain, thus limiting their development prospects, it hasn’t come through with much money to fix the problem. After years of delay, the cost to widen and deepen the channel has ballooned to $90 million, although some locals believe the city could do it for about $30 million less. (read more…)

Restoring the Rio

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Arizona Daily Sun • April 28, 2015 • By Emery Cowan

David McKee with the city of Flagstaff's stormwater management department stands above the Rio de Flag waterway. The city of Flagstaff is in the midst of a project to restore the river's historic watershed. Photo by Emery Cowan © AZ Daily Sun.

David McKee with the city of Flagstaff’s stormwater management department stands above the Rio de Flag waterway. The city of Flagstaff is in the midst of a project to restore the river’s historic watershed. Photo by Emery Cowan © AZ Daily Sun.

After it winds through Flagstaff, squeezing between homes, under roads and through culverts, the Rio de Flag ends up on the eastern edge of the city.

Here, boulders decorated with ancient petroglyphs rest in the shadows of construction trucks, and wildlife tracks appear just feet from a Cemex building materials work yard.

Here, the industrial uses that have been pushed to the city’s edge run up against, and tumble into, a rare ribbon of riparian habitat.

“A lot of this area was taken for granted as a trash dump for a long number of years,” said Andy Bertelsen, the county’s director of public works.

This is also the place where the city of Flagstaff has spent the better part of the past decade restoring the Rio de Flag’s path, step by step. The final vision is to extend the Flagstaff Urban Trail System for 3.3 miles along the newly restored riparian area. The trail would connect Doney Park to the existing FUTS trail near the Flagstaff Mall and wind through Picture Canyon Natural and Cultural Preserve. (read more…)

City requests $500K for Rio de Flag project

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The Rio de Flag runs near the library during the snowstorm that hit Flagstaff recently. Photo by Shannon Clark.

The Rio de Flag runs near the library during the snowstorm that hit Flagstaff recently. Photo by Shannon Clark.

The city of Flagstaff is hoping for another $500,000 from the federal government to complete the design of the Rio de Flag Flood Control project.

In a report to Flagstaff City Council, Deputy City Manager Josh Copley detailed the city’s annual lobbying trip to Washington, D.C. This year’s delegation included Copley, Mayor Jerry Nabours and Councilmembers Karla Brewster and Jeff Oravits. At the top of the list of topics to discuss with federal representatives was the Rio de Flag Flood Control project.

The project is designed to channel the water from a 100-year flood away from the city’s center. The city and the federal government have been working on the project since 2000. The original cost of the project was estimated at $24 million. It now has an estimated cost of $106 million. This year the city’s delegation to Washington asked for an additional $500,000 to complete the design of the project.

At Tuesday’s Council meeting, Copley said the trip was a great success. The delegation was able to meet with nearly all of the Congress members and federal staff members it needed to on the topic it wanted to discuss.

Vice Mayor Celia Barotz asked if there was any part of the trip that was disappointing.

Nabours said Rio de Flag project continues to be a source of frustration.

“It just seems like it’s just one issue after another. We just keep pushing it along. I think what we accomplished on that is to keep that project moving,” he said.

Copley said the delegation was able to meet with Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake and Reps. Paul Gosar and Ann Kirkpatrick. All four congressional members agreed to support the project and reach out to the Army Corps of Engineers.

The delegation also met with representatives from the Energy, Science and Water Division of the Office of Management and Budget about possible funding to complete the design phase. The representatives from OMB also said they would contact the Corps of Engineers for more information on the project.

The deputy chief of the South Pacific Division of the Corps of Engineers recommended that the city contact the Corps’ assistant secretary as soon as possible about the funds.

Nabours told the rest of Council that it was important to keep the project at the forefront of the Corps and OMB’s attention. There are probably thousands of similar projects across the nation that are competing for the same pool of money. If the city doesn’t keep on top of the federal government, the project will never be completed.

Nabours also said that the delegation received some good news on another part of the Rio de Flag project concerning the purchase of property from the railroad. Federal laws states that land that was given to the railroad by the federal government must be returned to the government if the railroad no longer has a use for it.

Nabours said the delegation found out that a similar situation has come up before and there is federal precedent for selling federal land owned by the railroad to another entity. It will however, take an act of Congress in order for the sale to go through.

Nabours said he wasn’t too worried about the city getting approval for the sale of the property because the issue is usually not contentious and it had the support of Reps. Gosar and Raul Grijalva and Sen. Flake.

The delegation also met with the Arizona members of Congress, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service on forest health, Copley and Nabours said.

Sens. McCain and Flake have proposed a wildfire protection bill that would focus on preventing wildfires and less on mitigation during and after fires.

According to Copley’s report to Council, the delegation expressed the city’s frustration with how slowly the work with Good Earth and Campbell Group on the Four Forest Initiative was going. They also asked for further funding for federal staff in the Flagstaff area to continue the work on the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project and environmental impact statement and record of decision on the project.

The delegation also planted the seeds of interest in federal help with widening the Fourth Street bridge over Interstate 40 and the Lone Tree Road I-40 interchange, Nabours said.

It also found support for a veterans home in Flagstaff from its congressional members.

Drainage with direction for Flagstaff

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Malcolm Alter, the stormwater engineer for the city of Flagstaff, stands in front of one of the undersized culverts along the Rio de Flag that a new watershed flood model is likely to identify as in need of enlarging. (Jake Bacon/Arizona Daily Sun)

Malcolm Alter, the stormwater engineer for the city of Flagstaff, stands in front of one of the undersized culverts along the Rio de Flag that a new watershed flood model is likely to identify as in need of enlarging. (Jake Bacon/Arizona Daily Sun)

Malcolm Alter stood on Cherry Avenue as it crosses over the Rio de Flag and held his hand up to his waist. That was how high water would reach above the culvert in the event of a 100-year flood.

City stormwater officials generally know how Flagstaff would be affected if a massive, 100-year flood spilled into the watershed that drains into the city’s heart. But flooding impacts under other scenarios — if a massive wildfire roared through the area or if drainage-altering development occurred upstream of town — are hypotheticals the city has a hard time answering.

It’s a problem they’re hoping to solve thanks to a $200,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The city will use the money to develop a set of hydrologic models that will allow it to predict what would happen to the Rio de Flag watershed under a range of scenarios.

That type of information will allow the city to do a better job of prioritizing stormwater infrastructure projects to minimize the risk of flood-related damage as well as find solutions to drainage problems that already exist.

Time for an update

Currently the city’s only watershed model is the standard FEMA flood insurance rate map. The more than 30-year-old document only discusses the potential impacts of a 100-year flood, which has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year.

“It isn’t worth much of anything,” said Malcolm Alter, the city of Flagstaff’s stormwater manager. “Nobody even knows where it is.”

FEMA has long focused on creating and updating the floodplain maps used for flood insurance policies. Over the last five years, though, the federal agency has turned its focus to help communities recognize and make better decisions about flood risk, said Bob Bezek a mitigation engineer with FEMA.

Flagstaff’s new modeling program will allow the city to better predict and prepare for the impacts of wildfire on the watershed, for example, which is something many places have failed to do, Bezek said.

Most communities’ efforts related to wildfires are usually very reactionary, which tends to also mean they are very expensive.

“With a study like Flagstaff’s maybe they can get ahead of those things,” Bezek said.

New capabilities

Flagstaff’s model will have the capabilities to show how the water would flow through the city’s manmade and natural drainages in rarer high-volume flood events, but also during the lower volume floods that are more likely to affect the area. The model will allow city engineers to pinpoint the potential bottlenecks — culverts that convey less water, and would be more prone to spilling over, than others upstream and downstream. With limited resources, the city will get the most bang for its buck if it can identify and focus on these drastically undersized culverts, Alter said.

The city will also put a major focus on modeling how water will drain from areas of the forest that will be treated under projects like the Four Forests Restoration Initiative. Those conclusions could help make an argument for future forest-thinning efforts as well, Alter said.

Finding solutions for persistent problems like water pooling on the east side of town that locals call Lake Continental and a sinkhole known as the Bottomless Pit are on the city’s to-do list as well.

On a broader scale, the project will help the city model how watershed flooding will be affected by weather events like severe storms that are expected to become more common with climate change.

Beyond city limits

The Rio de Flag watershed doesn’t end at the city limits, though, so the city’s modeling program won’t end there. either. Coconino County is involved in the project, as is Northern Arizona University. Students will be able to contribute data, such as soil mapping, to the model and then use it for various projects, said Charlie Schlinger, an associate professor of civil engineering at NAU.

If local entities like the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Forest Service can also put information into the model, it can become state of the art, Alter said.

Flagstaff has already showed a commitment to improving the watershed. The city has adopted ordinances that incorporate green development principles that emphasize the use of natural drainage systems like plants and landscaping.

Kyle Brown, a stormwater project manager with the city, spearheaded a volunteer project on Saturday to landscape a corner of city property on West Coconino Avenue. Cuts in the curb will divert water that flows down the street gutter into a rock-covered channel. That water will be used to irrigate native plants and trees the volunteers also planted. The result is a project that puts stormwater to good use and mitigates flooding farther down the street.

“It sees the value of ecosystem services that a natural system provides and encourages those to be thought of again,” Brown said. “We’re basically trying to bring back the natural systems of the watershed.”

City-built Rio de Flag has tradeoffs

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Flooding in 2004-05 in the Rio de Flag below Sinagua Heights (AZ Daily Sun courtesy photo).

Flooding in 2004-05 in the Rio de Flag below Sinagua Heights (AZ Daily Sun courtesy photo).

Flagstaff City Council is tired of waiting for the federal government to fund and build the Rio de Flag flood control project.

Staff presented Council with four design and cost alternatives to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s plan for the project Tuesday.

The good news is a city-built project would likely be completed sooner than the Army’s plan.

The bad news is that the local project would not receive federal funding and thus likely cost local taxpayers at least $23 million more than the Army project unless other funding can be obtained.

James Duval, the city project manager, said the Army project is taking too long. The Corps estimates that it will take around 20 to 25 years to finish and the cost has increased 446 percent since the project started in 2004. The city has spent $15 million to date and struggled to get federal funding for the project for the last three years.

Staff identified four options for the project, he said. In the first option, the city could continue working with the Army Corps and depend on federal funding. In the second option, it could take federal funding and ask the Corps to allow the city to administer the project. In the third option, the city would take complete control of the project and find a way to fund it itself.

The fourth option was to abandon the project altogether.

“I don’t think the fourth one is really an option,” said Vice Mayor Coral Evans.

A 100-year flood would inundate much of downtown, southside and NAU and cause hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage.

Staff also presented four alternative plans for the project using the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s floodwater estimates instead of the Corps.

Duval said the FEMA water volume estimates for a 100-year flood were about 45 percent to 50 percent less than the Corps’ estimates. The two agencies use different methods to calculate floodwaters. Because the idea behind the Rio de Flag project is to pull the area out of a FEMA flood zone, it makes sense to use FEMA numbers, he said.

All city alternatives include smaller culverts and pipes based on FEMA projections and composite channels. The composite channels allow water to flow over the ground and underground. This retains the natural character of the Rio de Flag.

The first option would use the Corps path for the flood channel but reduce the size of the tunnels, pipes and culverts for the project to fit the FEMA flood estimates. It would also include a composite channel on the north side of the railroad tracks. The channel would allow slower flows to run through an open channel. Faster floodwaters would be channeled underground.

The first option would also use part of the original open air flood channel south of the tracks.

The consultant from Michael Baker International estimated that this option would cost $67 million, which is $40 million less than the $107 million the Corps design is expected to cost.

But the Corps plan would continue to be primarily funded by the federal government, while a FEMA-based project would be wholly locally funded. Staff estimated the city’s share to complete the Corps project would be $34 million, vs. $57.4 million for the preferred local alternative.

The second alternative would use more of the original channel north of Route 66 than the Army Corps’ plan. It would also include the smaller culverts and pipes, the composite channel  and the open channel south of the tracks. The consultant estimated that this plan would cost $65 million.

The third alternative would channel flood waters down the Butler Avenue culvert to a junction at five points, where Butler Avenue, Route 66 and Clay Avenue meet. It would also include the smaller tunnels and culverts, composite channel and open channel south of the tracks. The consultant didn’t recommend this option because the city didn’t know how much extra water the Butler Avenue culvert could handle. This option would cost $64 million.

The fourth alternative was a combination of the first two and the one staff preferred. It would include the smaller channels, composite channel and open channel. It would also use round pipes instead of larger, arched culverts for the Clay Avenue Wash. It would cost around $63 million.

City Manager Kevin Burke said the city has not reserved funds to complete either the Army project or the FEMA project.

After much discussion, Council directed staff to continue researching the city-built alternatives while it continued to work with the Army Corps to get the project funded and finished.

Rio de Flag Flood Control Project Comparison

Army Corps

  • Total project cost $107M
  • City spending to date  $15M
  • City share to complete $34M

City FEMA project

  • Total project cost $63M
  • City spending to date $5.6M
  • City cost to complete  $57.4M

Rio de Flag Flood Control Alternatives

  • Army Corps – $107 million
  • City Alternative 1- Same path as Army Corps but smaller culverts -$67 million
  • City Alternative 2- Use part of original alignment north of Route 66 – $65 million
  • City Alternative 3 – Run floodwaters down Butler Avenue culvert to junction at 5 Points – $64 million
  • City Alternative 4 (Preferred) – Use of original path north of Route 66 with concrete pipes for Clay Avenue Wash – $63 million.

Flagstaff purchase of Picture Canyon a 30-year dream come true

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Flagstaff City Manager Kevin Burke makes a bid for Picture Canyon Tuesday during the auction on the steps of the Coconino County Courthouse. The city bought 480 acres at Picture Canyon for $4.8 million from the State Land Department. (Courtesy photo by Tom Bean)

Flagstaff City Manager Kevin Burke makes a bid for Picture Canyon Tuesday during the auction on the steps of the Coconino County Courthouse. The city bought 480 acres at Picture Canyon for $4.8 million from the State Land Department. (Courtesy photo by Tom Bean)

Donald Weaver saw past the rusting hulks of steel, rotting rubber and scattered piles of trash when he first began surveying Picture Canyon in the late 1970s.

An expert on the ancient petroglyphs painted on the canyon walls, Weaver vowed to protect from encroachment not only the rare art but the lush vegetation and the animals that called the unique corridor home.

“It wasn’t so pretty back then,” he remembered. “There were abandoned vehicles down at the bottom of the canyon. There was trash all over the place. There were old tires down there. There was all kinds of stuff.”

Weaver finally was able to see his dreams realized as the city completed the final step Tuesday on a multi-decade journey to keep Picture Canyon out of the hands of private developers.

The city was the sole bidder for the 480-acre parcel offered by the State Land Department at auction, purchasing the property for just under $4.8 million.

In a sea of supporters and city employees, City Manager Kevin Burke donned his Halloween costume from last year — dressing up as Waldo from popular children’s books in order to be seen by the state officials auctioning off the land.

He even brought a bright yellow sign just in case a bidding war erupted for the hundreds of undeveloped acres alongside the canyon.

The land surrounding Picture Canyon has risen in value since the treatment process at the plant was upgraded to A+, or 99 percent treated, several years ago.

The restoration project, which broke ground in 2010, helped to restore the natural course of the stream and enhance the riparian corridor for habitat, recreation and beauty, according to city officials.

Burke’s props on Tuesday were unnecessary, with the auction lasting less than two minutes.

The city will use a $2.4 million grant from the Arizona State Parks Department and money remaining from a voter-approved 2004 open space bond to cover the purchase price.

The city handed over a check worth 10 percent of the total price on Tuesday and will pay the remainder to the State Land Department in the next 30 days.

The Land Department, whose auctions benefit education in Arizona, is obligated to get the best price for the land, regardless of use.

The city was not, however, able to buy the entire canyon. A small parcel just east of the Rio de Flag Wastewater Treatment Plant and south of a massive APS utility line has been classified as suitable for development.

Privately owned parcels with houses already border three sides of the environmentally sensitive tract that the city plans to purchase.

A fourth boundary backs up to the city wastewater treatment plant and Interstate 40.

Former Councilmember Nat White can think of only one other property in the 42 years he has lived in Flagstaff that is as important as Picture Canyon: Buffalo Park.

The retired astronomer said that although Picture Canyon may not draw as many visitors as the popular park on McMillan Mesa, it is a valuable asset to teach generations about Flagstaff’s past while allowing them to experience its natural beauty.

For Weaver, whose hair has turned white over the decades since he first saw Picture Canyon, the new park is not for him, but the next generation of residents.

“Thirty years of work has finally paid off,” he said. “Hopefully by the time I leave this Earth, it will be a major territory for the city’s parks division.”

Flagstaff buys Picture Canyon for $4.8 million

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AZ Daily Sun • October 30, 2012 • by Joe Ferguson

The city of Flagstaff’s plans to buy and preserve hundreds of acres at Picture Canyon came to fruition this morning when the State Land Department accepted the city’s $4.8 million bid at auction.

City Manager Kevin Burke offered the sole bid for the 480 acres. The state agency deemed the culturally significant riparian habitat suitable for conservation purposes, thus lowering the minimum asking price to $10,000 an acre.

The city will use a $2.4 million grant from the Arizona State Parks Department and money remaining from a voter-approved 2004 open space bond to cover the purchase price.
City Councilmember Celia Barotz said the purchase of Picture Canyon for preservation has been a goal of hers for more than two years.

“This acquisition is a true testament to the vision and tenacity of the group of Flagstaff residents who years ago imagined that Picture Canyon could one day be permanently protected. I am thrilled that the City Council has authorized the use of 2004 open space bonds to complete this long-awaited purchase and will make this unique historical, cultural, archaeological, recreational and educational resource available for present and future generations to enjoy,” said Barotz.

Climate Change and the Rising Cost of Living for Southwestern Forests

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Museum of Northern Arizona Future of the Colorado Plateau Lecture Series

fire-aftermathA Science Presentation by Dr. A. Park Williams, Los Alamos National Laboratory
Friday, October 19, 2012 • 7:00-8:30pm • Chase-Braninger Auditorium, MNA

Park Williams is the lead author on a research paper, “Temperature as a potent driver of regional forest drought stress and tree mortality,” published September 30, 2012 inNature Climate Change. His co-authors are a who’s who of southwestern climate change scientists.

Based on an extensive analysis of tree ring data, Williams’ study reveals a bleak future for the forests of the Southwest. He concludes that the relatively steady increase in air surface temperatures that we are experiencing and will continue to experience will push our southwestern forests over the threshold of sustainability by about 2050.

“In the Southwest,” says Williams, “two main factors dictate where trees can and cannot live: the amount of water provided to trees via snow and rain, and the amount of water taken away from trees via evapotranspiration. As the Southwest warms, increasingly more water is removed via evapotranspiration, making less water available for use by forests.”

His talk in Flagstaff will address the following questions:

  • How have recent reductions in moisture availability affected southwestern forests so far, and how do these effects compare to the effects of historical drought events such as the 1950s drought and the megadroughts of the 1200s and 1500s?
  • What types of climate changes are expected to occur in the Southwest in the coming decades?
  • How should we expect these changes to influence future forest growth and survival?”

William DeBuys, author of A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, says of Williams’ work,”It is exciting to witness the release of the scientific equivalent of a best-seller. [His] work incorporates the kind of innovation and power than only come along once in a great while.”

Dr. Tom Sisk, Ecology Professor at NAU, says, “The science is strong and clearly presented. Its thoughtful consideration demands revision of our understanding of drought, as well as our approach to forest conservation…[T]ype conversion at landscape scales may be inevitable.”

Lost springs on rebound

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Retired Coconino National Forest engineer Shannon Clark volunteers with Friends of Rio de Flag and the Forest Service to monitor altered spring sites like Big Leroux, which the Forest Service plans to restore. (Photo courtesy Bonnie Stevens)

Retired Coconino National Forest engineer Shannon Clark volunteers with Friends of Rio de Flag and the Forest Service to monitor altered spring sites like Big Leroux, which the Forest Service plans to restore. (Photo courtesy Bonnie Stevens)

As patchy snow crunches under his boots and icy crystals sparkle in the early winter sun, Steve Monroe hikes to a small canyon on the southwestern side of the San Francisco Peaks.

This place of basalt boulders and towering pines looks like a lot of other frozen scenes in northern Arizona’s high country on a January day, except a closer look into concrete enclosures reveals movement.

Water — now released only through a system of valves and pipes.

Perched into the slope is Big Leroux Spring. Its perennial flow was once an important water source for American Indians, pioneers, wildlife and Flagstaff’s founders. Explorers coming through with thirsty mules and horses called it a fountain that bursts out of the side of the mountain. In 1851, Lieutenant Edward Beale described it as “transparent sparkling water” that “runs gurgling down for a quarter of a mile, where it loses itself in the valley.”

For the last decade, Monroe, a National Park Service hydro-ecologist, has been measuring the water flow and studying the history of the area. He says early visitors likely found the now endangered northern leopard frog here, probably salamanders, snails and dragonflies, too.

“Those species have been observed at other non-diverted or less-diverted springs in this region and it’s very probable that they existed at Big Leroux Spring because of the availability of water.”


But things have changed in the last century and a half. The water has been diverted for people and livestock. The wetland, created by the spring, doesn’t exist anymore.

Northern Arizona University School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability hydrogeologist Abe Springer says the same thing has happened all over the West.

“More than a thousand springs and spring-fed wetlands support rich plant and animal life in northern Arizona, including rare species,” he said. “Unfortunately almost all of them have been declared ‘at risk’ by the Arizona Water Institute.”

NAU School of Forestry Executive Director Jim Allen agrees.

“Settlers would have come upon many spring-fed wetlands, such as wet meadows, here in northern Arizona that hold onto the water and slowly release it downstream,” Allen said. “Today we often see deeply eroded stream channels that quickly whisk water away.”


Big Leroux Spring starts from snowmelt at higher elevations. The water is absorbed by porous volcanic rock. It finds its way down the mountain through tiny tunnels and cracks. Currently, the spring water is pumped to the Forest Service Hot Shot camp at the base of the Peaks. But firefighters aren’t there all year, and when they are, they’re only using a small percentage of that water.

Monroe says a modest flow for Big Leroux is 10 gallons per minute. That’s more than a garden hose at full blast.

“Many springs were plumbed decades ago to deliver drinking water to livestock, but this infrastructure is often dilapidated and can neither effectively provide water to livestock nor water for the riparian or wet meadow environments that springs would naturally support,” said Sharon Masek Lopez, a watershed restoration research specialist with the Ecological Restoration Institute.

In addition, millions of small-diameter trees choking Arizona’s forests because fire has been excluded for many years are absorbing water and drying out meadows that historically were spongy, muddy and wet.

“Trees use a greater amount of soil moisture than grasses and may be keeping springs from flowing,” said Springer.


Because springs are hotbeds for biodiversity, Springer and Masek Lopez are in search of sites like Big Leroux as candidates for restoration. Prioritizing these sites is a significant component of large forest health projects such as the Four Forest Restoration Initiative currently in the planning stages for 2.4 million acres across the Mogollon Rim.

So, working with the Grand Canyon Trust’s Spring Stewards and the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council, using findings from Monroe and others, looking at historic photographs and reading pioneer journals, these NAU researchers are assessing more than 200 springs on the Coconino and Kaibab National Forests.

“By engaging the public as volunteers in springs research and restoration we are building a community of educated people, which is critical to the survival of springs,” said Grand Canyon Trust Volunteer Program Manager Kate Watters.

Making the two-year collaborative spring study possible is a $146,000 grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. The goal is to identify at least 50 northern Arizona spring sites that can be rescued. Some restoration recommendations may involve a hybrid approach, where water is made available for livestock while reserving a protected area for wetland habitat.

During her lifetime, Nina Mason Pulliam dedicated her assets and business expertise to organizations helping people in need, and protecting animals and nature. Her legacy could one day include the return of natural pools, teeming with life, among the volcanic rocks at sites like Big Leroux.

No Rio funding soon

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A group of people watches a man wade chest-deep through the Rio de Flag as a flash flood fills the drainage at the intersection of South Leroux Street and Phoenix Avenue. (Jake Bacon/Arizona Daily Sun/file photo)

A group of people watches a man wade chest-deep through the Rio de Flag as a flash flood fills the drainage at the intersection of South Leroux Street and Phoenix Avenue. (Jake Bacon/Arizona Daily Sun/file photo)

The Flagstaff City Council remains committed to the $81 million Rio de Flag flood control project.

There just aren’t any federal funds committed to the project on the near horizon, and that has some members frustrated.

“I think we need to have an honest conversation at this point,” Mayor Sara Presler said this week. “I feel like we’ve been on the wildest goose chase of our lives.”

Councilmember Art Babbott has floated the idea of city taxpayers partially financing the project up front while the city waits for reimbursement from the Army Corps of Engineers.

“It is not that we are saying to abandon our federal opportunities, we just need to reassess where we are,” Babbott said at a recent council meeting. “It is highly unlikely that we will be (federally) financed to a degree where there wouldn’t be a significant local contribution.”

Bob Holmes, the city’s federal lobbyist, blamed the recent funding drought on the refusal by Congress to seek earmarks for the project.

“With earmarks gone, we are essentially left without any funding,” Holmes said. “If we get (another) continuing resolution this year, we will not be getting funding because we are not in the president’s budget.”

On Tuesday, the council directed Holmes to continue to seek federal funding for the project, which would protect downtown Flagstaff and Southside in the event of a major flood and spur development.

City officials thought they had found some money for the project through stopgap funding measures passed by Congress known as continuing resolutions.

Those appropriations are tied to a fiscal cycle that had $3 million set aside for the project. But because the Senate did not authorize the funding for it, the project has not received any funding in the last two years.

Holmes told the council that he is still hoping to have the project included in President Barack Obama’s budget for the next fiscal year. But he concedes the current problem is tied the city’s over-reliance on earmarks.

“We are kind of a victim of our own success as far as the Rio de Flag is concerned,” Holmes told the council.

Holmes, who has represented the city for nearly a decade, explained the city has relied on appropriations requested by various members of the Arizona congressional delegation rather than going through a competitive process for federal funding.

Earmarks have fallen out of favor with both parties in the wake of public criticism of their lack of transparency and accountability.


To get the project into Obama’s budget, he explained, the Army Corps needs to essentially complete a cost-to-value assessment of the project known as a “chief’s report.” The report is fairly common with other Corps projects.

“The reason they never asked for a chief’s report is because they didn’t want to waste their money and because we were getting money from Congress every year in the form of earmarks,” Holmes said. “If we don’t get that done in short order we may not be eligible for funding until FY14.”

Holmes said U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Doney Park, completely supports the project despite his personal unwillingness to fund it through earmarks.

The congressman, he said, has urged the Corps to use discretionary funding within their control to complete the project “because it is nearly halfway done” and “it would sit fallow” without federal funding.


Presler, who did not attend last Tuesday’s council meeting, is more pessimistic about the likelihood of federal funding in the near term.

She has been meeting regularly with members of Congress and Corps officials to lobby for the flood control project since taking office in 2008.

“I am concerned about the cracks in the levee, I am concerned about the lack of communication … I am very concerned about our federal strategy for receiving federal funding,” she told her colleagues at a recent council meeting. “I want to manage expectations about being in the president’s budget during an election year.”

Councilmember Coral Evans, who met with Corps officials Wednesday, left the dinner meeting with the belief that the federal agency is committed to getting the entire project fully funded and completed in a reasonable time frame.

“They are doing everything possible they can,” Evans said.

But that might not be enough for those hoping the decades-old flood control project will be completed in the next decade.

Babbott reaffirmed his commitment to continue to lobby for the project, but he left the door open to other possible funding measures.

Possibilities discussed include grants from state and federal agencies as well as local options, such as establishing a flood control district or getting voter approval to bond for the project.


With no federal funding for the Rio imminent, two options still exist for some minor construction projects related to the flood control project.

An unused earmark secured several years ago by former U.S. Rep. Rick Renzi and worth roughly $2.7 million could build a bridge near Thorpe Park related to the flood control project.

City officials are also still optimistic that $670,000 used by the Corps to investigate cracks in a detention basin that is part of the flood control project will eventually be made available for another capital project.

The city’s sole federal lobbyist tried to remain optimistic, despite the obstacles.

“I am confident we are going to get federal funding for the Rio,” Holmes said. “The question is when; the question is how.”