Timberline Residents Hold Their Breath and Try to Work Together to Deal with Future Flooding

Jul 3, 2012

As much of Northern Arizona holds its breath waiting for rain, residents in the Timberline neighborhood are not as hopeful.

This summer’s monsoon season could bring more devastating floods.

Coconino County and the Forest Service have plans to build channels to keep mud and floodwaters from damaging homes.

But, these plans depend on approval of all homeowners, and not everyone is falling in line.

After the 2010 Schultz Fire burned 15,000 hillside  acres northeast of Flagstaff, residents in Timberline are all too familiar with summer flooding.

"We retired to paradise and now we’re living in hell," said Klaus Brasch.  He lives off of Paintbrush Lane. "The monsoon comes around, you watch the side of the mountain, and you wonder if you’re going to get flooded. And that’s not a good feeling," he added.

To address the problem, Coconino County has secured $8.6 million in federal funding for long-term flood mitigation.

Instead of constructing concrete walls or canals, an

engineering firm will design channels using the natural dips in the landscape

These channels would guide water from Forest Service lands through the residential neighborhood to drain into Cinder Lake.

I went up to the burn area with Erin Phelps, who’s  with the Forest Service.

She says re-activating natural channels will help trap mud before it reaches the neighborhood.

"This is an attempt to speed up the natural process," she said.

Plus it's sustainable, and cost-effective, she adds.

Construction on the nine natural channels could begin as early as September.

But, there’s a hitch.

The channels must follow natural watersheds…not property lines.

Christopher Tressler, an engineer with Natural Channel Designs, points out, "You can’t turn water at a 90 degree angles along property lines."

This means residents must grant the county an easement—the right to cut across their property—if the water’s going to flow naturally.

The county has presented the easements to property owners in a series of “corridor” meetings.

But Grant Cooper, a sixteen-year resident of Timberline said, "The problem is that not all the residents who are downstream will agree to allow either county to go through their property or even to allow the channel."

Without a channel, water flows down his driveway and could damage his home.

"I’m really upset about it," he said, "because we’re the ones that are going to suffer."

County Supervisor Liz Archuleta says the work must go corridor by corridor and have 100% approval from residents.

If a single resident doesn’t agree to an easement "that will mean we won’t be able to proceed. We need to have a clear corridor," she said.

Kim Goldberger lives just down from Cooper and would receive flows from the same corridor.

Her take on the easements?

"The answer’s no," she said. "Like I said, my property’s hardly affected where I am."

Tempers have flared.

Sergant James Jackson with the Flagstaff Police Department says one argument between neighbors over redirected floodwater last year got out of hand.

"At least one individual either went inside to get a gun, said he was going to get a gun, and deputies had to be called," Sgt. Jackson recalled.

Timberline resident, Ruthann Stoner, says she understands those who oppose the easements.

"There’s a lot of personal, financial impact," she said.

But, floodwaters don’t impact just individuals.

Driving thru the neighborhood, engineer Christopher Tressler points to an electrical box on the edge of a large gully.

"These things can be overwhelmed, and it's becoming quite a nightmare, I believe, for the utility companies to keep their utilities on-line," Tressler said.

Left unchecked, the mudflows could uproot electrical lines and damage main water lines.

Water and power for whole neighborhoods are at stake.

The county has received federal money for the project, but the funds have to be used within two to three years.  

Local officials have already asked for an extension.

In the meantime, the county is fixing a handful of critically eroding sites in Timberline before monsoon season hits.

And the Forest Service has enlisted volunteers to help plant 33,000 ponderosas and plans for more in the fall.

How long will it take for the land to recover?

Engineer Chris Tressler says that is the great unknown.