Monthly Archives: October 2011

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.”

FoRio submits letter and white paper in support of Big Leroux Spring restoration

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Friends of the Rio de Flag has provided input to the Coconino National Forest (CNF) on its proposed Wing Mountain Fuels Reduction and Forest Health Restoration project. CNF had sent a letter to interested parties encouraging participation in a public scoping process.

FoRio provided a white paper with cover letter and a CD-ROM of additional materials in support of a proposed action that includes a desired condition for Big Leroux Spring of healthy, self-sustaining riparian vegetation around the spring. The spring would be re-plumbed to release excess water to the surface for the riparian area as well as potential breeding habitat for northern leopard frog. Ungulate-deterrent fences would be constructed and maintained to protect riparian vegetation.

Flood control plans crack

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The dam at the Clay Avenue Detention Basin in west Flagstaff has shown cracks that are the subject of a $670,000 investigation by the Army Corps of Engineers. (Jake Bacon/Arizona Daily Sun)

The dam at the Clay Avenue Detention Basin in west Flagstaff has shown cracks that are the subject of a $670,000 investigation by the Army Corps of Engineers. (Jake Bacon/Arizona Daily Sun)

A crack in a dam on the western edge of Flagstaff has halted progress on a flood control project deemed vital to the redevelopment of much of the Southside neighborhood.

The crack, which showed up 15 months ago, has already cost nearly three-quarters of a million dollars to investigate.

Repairs could cost at least a half-million dollars more.

Meanwhile, much of the rest of the Rio de Flag flood control project sits stalled in its design phase as vital federal funds for construction are issued to other cities.

Flagstaff officials are concerned that while the city had little to do with the construction of the Clay Avenue Detention Basin, the money used by the Army Corps of Engineers to probe the defects is coming out of a city-designated account designed for Rio de Flag construction.

“The city has significant concerns related to the continued accrual costs with the research and repair of the damaged levee at the Clay Avenue Wash Detention Basin,” wrote Flagstaff City Manager Kevin Burke in a letter to the Corps. “The city had no oversight with respect to the cost of the research, design and repair of levee and should not be obligated for any costs associated with remediation to correct deficiencies.”

With the limited federal monies issued to the city project used to pay for the investigation, the next phase of the Rio de Flag project along Butler Avenue is on hold until federal officials issue more funding. And until the entire project is finished, owners of properties in the Rio de Flag flood zone south of Route 66 will continue to face higher financing and construction costs along with strict building limitations.


The cracks along the main retaining wall on the detention basin showed up 15 months ago, soon after a California contractor finished the $6.5 million project.

The 71-acre basin is designed to hold 96 million gallons of floodwater and isn’t vital to public safety in most scenarios.

The city has been notified that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has spent $670,000 for a “forensic investigation to determine extent and causes of embankment deficiencies.”

For now, those unexpected expenses were paid out of a Corps-controlled account set aside for the next phase of the flood control project.

An initial estimate offered by the Corps last year suggested the investigation alone was going to cost roughly $1 million. The construction of the entire flood control project could cost between $69 million and $81 million.

A preliminary recommendation from the same federal agency on how to completely repair the retaining wall pegs the cost at up to $539,000 if an environmental assessment is required.

Currently, the city has no timeline on when it will be repaired.


The Flagstaff-based flood control project received no money in the last fiscal cycle, and hopes among city officials are fading that Congress will authorize any funding in the current cycle unless a cost-benefit study has been completed.

Burke praises the quick action by the Corps to investigate the cracks in the retaining wall immediately after their discovery, even though it meant the cost of the investigation came out of an account set aside for Rio de Flag flood control capital projects.

He said the use of those funds has delayed the next phase of the project, an extension of the channel near Butler Avenue.

The city manager said he has been told by Corps officials that the general contractor that built the entire basin will make repairs, but has not agreed to pay for the investigation.

He was told by Corps officials that legal action against the Los Angeles-based general contractor might be necessary to recover the funds.

Daniel Calderon, a spokesperson with the Army Corps, said he couldn’t comment on whether the Corps would seek to reimburse the funds through legal action against the contractor, saying the investigation is still ongoing and is under review by their legal department.


A supplemental report, issued by the Army Corps and obtained by the Arizona Daily Sun, identified embankment cracking, settlement of portions of the structures, as well as a missing sand filter in the upper portion of the embankment.

The preliminary report by the Army Corps and the Arizona Department of Water Resources suggested construction plans approved by the Army Corps were not followed by construction crews, but it falls short of assigning blame to any particular agency.

Alpine Diversified, the Los Angeles-based general contractor that built the basin, did not respond to requests by the Daily Sun for comment.

The company lists numerous contracts with the Army Corps on its website, including the $5.1 million contract to build the basin for the Rio de Flag flood control project.


The dam, in its current condition, is not considered to be an imminent threat to the safety of residents downstream or adjacent to it, even during a 100-year storm.

The structure is designed to withstand a once-in-a-century type of storm when the community reaches full build-out in 2053.

The Army Corps of Engineers modeled floodwaters created from dozens of square miles of impervious surfaces expected to be built in future developments on both sides of the city in the next 40 years. With virtually no development west of the basin yet, city engineers believe that a significant portion of heavy rains will be absorbed into the ground rather than run off and pool next to the damaged basin.

“Although it is theoretically possible that the embankment could fail … the probability is considered so remote as to render that scenario overly and unrealistically extreme,” the Corps concluded.

Rio de Flag debacle calls for new approach

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If ever there was a poster child for the deeply flawed federalism that is enabled by a congressional spoils system, it is the Rio de Flag flood control project in Flagstaff.

It’s bad enough that the project has languished for more than a decade while a series of First District congressmen and women scramble to take credit each year for the funds dribbling out of the Army Corps of Engineers.

But now, after the first major part of the project is actually constructed under Corps oversight, we learn in a preliminary Corps report that it was badly built and will cost the city even more time and money to get the project back on track.

It’s enough to make even the most loyal supporters of the federal government’s role in local capital projects rethink just how much federal involvement there should be.


To outsiders, flood control in a high desert environment might seem like a low federal priority amid scenes of devastation each spring and summer along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers — and now even Vermont.

But to residents and business owners in Southside, the Rio de Flag flood zone is a huge cloud hanging over their future. Without adequate flood control, property owners can’t even get affordable financing for renovations, much less put up new buildings unless they are willing to use expensive flood mitigation techniques (ie., raised foundations).

And if a 100-year flood were to sweep down the Rio de Flag past City Hall and through Southside, an estimate back in 2000 predicted 1,000 structures would be damaged at a cost of $395 million, plus $93 million more in lost city tax revenues.

A decade later, those estimates are likely to be much higher.

Some critics of federal flood control aid contend that if cities are going to allow development in known flood zones, it’s up to them to mitigate the danger.

Others go even further, contending that if property owners in a flood zone can’t afford the federal flood insurance needed to finance new construction, it’s up to them to form a flood district and tax themselves in order to finance the needed flood controls.

The latter is actually the option that Coconino County has taken with self-contained flood zones in areas such as Timberline and Doney Park — residents there pay higher taxes in order to get locally financed flood controls.

That approach is less effective, however, in river systems that cross city, county and state boundaries, which is why the Army Corps has stepped in to design coordinated flood control systems up and down the Mississippi, Missouri and other rivers.


But the Rio de Flag happens to be a relatively small flood zone that the city of Flagstaff, in concert with the county and the national forest, should have been able to address years ago by forming a regional flood control district. All it would have taken was a federal block grant with a required local match, then turning loose local engineers and contractors to build the project with the funds allotted.

It’s the process used by the feds at state and municipal levels to build new highways, bridges, light rail systems and airport runways, and it’s time local flood control received the same treatment.

Instead, the Rio de Flag has seen its funds dribbled out as either annual appropriations from the Army Corps or as pork barrel grants by congressional representatives dating back to J.D. Hayworth. Because of the long-term funding uncertainty, only parts of the project can be designed and built at one time, rather than placing it under one general contractor working with local subcontractors on a coordinated timeline.

Not surprisingly, the decadelong delay has caused the price tag to leap from $25 million to $80 million, with most of the work downtown still to be done. The first major project was a $5 million, 71-acre detention basin in far west Flagstaff that is not deemed critical for flood protection until decades into the future when that part of the city is built out.

Then, to add insult to injury, the dam at the basin turned out to have cracks. The $670,000 the Corps has spent to investigate the problem and the estimated $500,000 it will cost to fix it are likely to come initially out of project funds intended for future construction while the financial liability is litigated.

At this point, even though the Rio de Flag is a federally established flood zone and thus a federal responsibility to help mitigate, it’s time for Flagstaff to consider cutting its ties to the Corps and get the project done on its own. There is talk at City Hall of selling enough bonds up front to construct the project all at once under city oversight, assuming voters approve the taxes needed to pay back the bonds.


Given the uncertain prospects for continued federal funding through the Army Corps budget, the demise of congressional earmarks, and the unlikely chances for reform of the Army Corps’ command-and-control approach to local projects, we think transferring the entire project to the city is worth exploring. City voters last year rejected more than $60 million in proposed bonding for a new courthouse and a new public works yard, so there is enough unused secondary tax capacity to justify a feasibility study. But whether there is enough political support for such a project, especially as the recession lingers, is another matter.

For now, the continuing debacle that is the Rio de Flag flood control project is cause for everyone associated with it at the local level to explore new ways to get the project onto a fast track. We appreciate the role the federal government plays in immediate disaster relief. But when it comes to disaster prevention, that involvement in Flagstaff has itself been a prescription for disaster.