Rio de Flag Faces ReŽngineering

October 31, 2002

Lucas Holub
The Lumberjack


"Lake Continental," a short-lived body of water created in 1993 by a blocked drainage pipe was a testament to the inherent problems with the Rio de Flag's present route through Flagstaff. The culvert, blocked with refuse, measured only three feet in diameter. When blocked, the resulting backup swamped the Continental Country Club and several roads.
"When they unblocked it, pulled the branches and trash out of the culvert, it was like someone pulled a cork," said Joseph Meehan, a director of the Arizona Historical Society.

Much of Flagstaff suffers from the same predicament; the city is largely built on several floodplains where businesses and homes are backed by waters that periodically swell with heavy rain and melting snow, flooding property. Development in the 100-year floodplain area has ceased, and the remaining residents pay high insurance fees.

The tides are changing. In the summer of 2000, the Army Corps of Engineers completed a $2.3 million feasibility study for the redirection of the Rio.

Randy Ryan, the city's project manager for the Rio project, said a water detention facility and several channel improvements are key to the project.

It is currently in full swing, with the design stage scheduled for conclusion by next October.

The city of Flagstaff will cover a third of the $24 million price tag and the remaining two-thirds hopefully will be provided by federal funding.

With the current political climate, some city planners, like Ryan are uneasy about federal spending.

If federal funding goes through, the first phase of the project, a drainage area called the Clay Avenue Basin will be built. The basin would remove much of Flagstaff from the drainage of a 116-square-mile watershed area.

By April 2004, the building of the channel for directing the Rio is slated to begin.

"We're taking it back to its original flow," Ryan said in reference to the redirection path that will run near Route 66. A 28-foot by 12-foot diversion tunnel would pass underneath the railroad tracks.

"The hardest thing about the whole project is getting the crossing at the railroad." Ryan said.

According to the Corps feasibility study, controlling the Rio de Flag would remove about 1,500 buildings from the 100-year floodplain. The project would also give peace of mind to the 30,000 Flagstaff residents that would be affected by a flood.

When the diversion is complete in 2006, it will be a windfall for investors and developers in currently restricted flood zone areas. Property values are expected to skyrocket. The bane of flood insurance would be lifted.

However, some Flagstaff residents caution against redevelopment of the area. There is speculation that with higher property value, many longtime Flagstaff residents could be displaced by the price of progress.

David Wilcox of the Northern Arizona Museum spoke of the coming changes.

"People on the southside will be changed. There are many minority residents with deep roots there. That could all be yuppified," he said. "The danger from a historic rehabilitation point of view, is that developers have the potential to damage some very important parts of Flagstaff."

The solution for the Rio de Flag's present course may not make everyone happy, but the city fears the possible damage of a 100-year flood.

"In the event of a 100-year flood, southside would be roughly under 5 to 6 feet of water," Ryan said.

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