Flagstaff residents impacted by severe post-fire flooding in the Pipeline West area sent two separate open letters to city and county offices Wednesday, imploring local leadership to expand how they address immediate needs in the impacted neighborhoods.
The needs detailed in the letters include topics from infrastructural improvements to expert guidance, as repeated flooding continues to hammer the area. City and county officials report that their immediate efforts are at a maximum and that long-term improvements are being pursued.
A high likelihood of precipitation remains in the forecast, with the National Weather Service reporting a 40-90% chance of rain every day through Tuesday.
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“Do better for us,” reads one of the letters submitted and signed by 32 residents in the Coconino Estates neighborhood, where floodwaters have steadily encroached during the monsoon season. “Feelings of frustration, disappointment, anger, hurt, and fear are mounting as increased property damage and personal danger are impending.”
The Coconino Estates letter makes some specific requests — such as the placement of “experienced professionals with legitimate flood mitigation experience” within the neighborhoods to advise residents — as well as traffic management, volunteer coordination, abridgment of mitigation construction timelines, enhanced communication and weekly updates. It also expresses the concern that current sandbagging mitigation placed by residents could be “dangerous, yet well intended.”
“We need professionals to work with our neighbors to better strategize protecting their personal property and minimizing downstream impacts,” the letter reads.
More advice and engagement is key, said Allie Stender, a Coconino Estates resident who submitted the letter to elected officials.
“We need the actual technical expertise to inform how we do mitigation in our yards,” Stender said. “We need to have conversations with representatives from the city to feel supported and feel heard. To do a good job serving the public, you have to engage in the midst of the crisis. And that level of engagement isn’t happening.”
The other letter, submitted and signed by 29 residents on Stevanna Way, is focused more on recognizing that the current flooding, while exacerbated by watershed damage incurred from the Pipeline Fire, is also the result of “a series of poor engineering decisions, compromises and inaction.”
“A fundamental cause of this series of five floods (so far) can be traced to under-capable and poorly designed culvert structures,” the Stevanna letter reads. “The coupled Stevanna and Coconino Estates situation is outrageous and unsustainable.”
The Stevanna letter references the emergency mitigation conducted by residents in order to drain “Lake Stevanna” — the routine pooling of water that has accompanied each flood event. According to this letter, this mitigation was necessary to convey water away from Stevanna and a nearby apartment complex into the Rio de Flag.
“Our mitigation efforts on Stevanna were voluntary and, arguably, honorable; but they shouldn’t have been necessary,” the letter reads.
It advocates for the exploration of other solutions, such as the emergency construction of conveyances “through or under open areas upstream of the North Woods Apartments and Stevanna Way.”
The Stevanna letter joins the Coconino Estates letter in pleading for more short- and long-term response from local government.
“The city needs to act with focus and urgency,” it reads. “The west side has now joined the east side in facing the gruesome reality of rapid environmental changes, poor planning, underperforming infrastructure, and their ensuing havoc.”
The Coconino Estates letter also contends that the Pipeline West area is receiving a “disparate” response compared to previous emergencies, alleging a lack of interagency coordination between city and county government.
“This disparity is unnecessary, inappropriate and quite possibly unethical,” the letter reads. “City staff and residents deserve the same level of interagency coordination regardless of which jurisdiction is taking the lead on the response.”
According to city public works director Scott Overton, who is also serving as the city incident commander for the Pipeline West incident management team, there have been “no issues” with interagency coordination between the city and county.
“It’s just everybody is really stretched thin,” he said.
The county has been additionally taxed, Overton said, by having to respond to flooding in the Pipeline East area, which is entirely under county jurisdiction and thus not subject to support from city resources.
The county is providing every resource available to the Pipeline West response, said Lucinda Andreani, director of the county flood control district. Efforts include the tens of thousands of sandbags that are currently protecting Pipeline West homes.
“Upwards of 95% of those sandbags have all come through the district sandbagging operation,” Andreani said.
She also reported that engineering consultation for immediate and long-term mitigation in the Schultz Creek Watershed has been funded at a “substantial” cost to the county flood control district.
Nonetheless, Andreani recognized that people are “frustrated” by what seems to be a difference in response among the various flood events in the county. Some differences can be accounted for by the unique situation in Pipeline West — one that combines the residential density of the Museum Fire flood area and the topographical tendency toward “pooling” as seen in the Pipeline East, Doney Park flood area.
“That’s really complicating the dynamics there,” Andreani said, adding that resisting the urge to use mitigation to protect yards and landscaping — and instead only sandbagging houses and structures — could help in the area.
“We understand [protecting yards],” Andreani said. “That’s what everybody wants to do. But if the water actually spreads out there, it could dissipate through the neighborhood and have a lot less impact.”
There has been a “big effort” to support and educate residents in the area, Andreani said, including patrols of engineers who have walked the area to “get out information about how people should mitigate,” production of flood preparedness guides and the creation of a hotline to request individual assessments from an engineer.
That hotline, in Overton’s opinion, has been “very responsive.”
“There’s not been a backlog of engineering requests,” he said.
The city and county also arranged a community meeting a week ago. During the meeting, Coconino County District 1 Supervisor Patrice Horstman reiterated that the city and county are “working closely together” to do “everything we can.” But she recognized that their ability to address the crisis in the short term “won’t be enough.”
“This is beyond the capabilities of the city, beyond the capabilities of the county,” Horstman said. “We need federal money.”
On this front, there has been some motion.
The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) recently “confirmed” that they would be providing $2.4 million toward the construction of a 16-acre detention basin to reduce flood impacts in the Pipeline West area, Overton said.
A statement from the City of Flagstaff noted that “although the basins will not eliminate the threat of flooding, they will significantly mitigate it. It is notable that this project is slated to be completed this fall — only six months after the Pipeline Fire event. This is stated not to sidestep residents’ concerns, but rather to highlight the importance and urgency that has been attributed to this situation by the City and its partners.”
The pace of the project evidences how governmental response to fire and flooding has actually improved in recent years, said Rep. Tom O’Halleran. He said this is in part due to legislative efforts to expand available funding for fire and flood responses, and improve coordination between agencies such as the NRCS and the U.S. Forest Service.
“If you look back at the history of the Schultz Fire, you’ll see that it took a long time even to get to a point where we could have the money for the engineering process to move forward,” O’Halleran said.
Still, he recognizes there is more that can be done, and lauded the efforts of Sens. Mark Kelly and Krysten Sinema in their pursuit of funding to support proactive forest management.
“We have to be proactive,” O’Halleran said. “The days of sitting around and waiting for disaster to happen should be long gone.”
But while six months may be an improved pace for government, it’s still woefully slow for residents that are facing floodwaters every few days.
“We have another month of monsoons ahead,” the Coconino Estates letter reads. “We refuse to wait until October for relief.”
More information on the Pipeline West mitigation and resources can be found at www.coconino.az.gov/2944/Pipeline-West-Flood-Area and www.flagstaff.az.gov/4767/Pipeline-Fire-West-Flood-Area.
The city hotline to request an engineering assessment is (928-213-2102) and will be answered Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. People can also call this number to request a damage assessment if you experience interior or exterior flooding on your property.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism