Authorities continue to search for 6-year-old Willa Rawlings, whose family’s vehicle was swept away by floodwaters.
Sean Logan, The Republic | azcentral.com
Before three young children were swept down the flooding Tonto Creek on Friday, the creek’s dangers were all too familiar to the people living along the intermittent waterway near Roosevelt Lake.
A bridge has long been desired there, but the $20 million price tag is out of reach for the county and was rejected multiple times by the federal government. The most recent denial came just last month.
For decades, the roughly 1,500 residents in the area have had to contend with high waters after storms that turn the normally dry creek bed into a torrent, keeping them isolated from groceries, jobs, school and even medical treatment.
At least five other people have died in the water in the past 25 years, according to a recent grant application seeking funds for the bridge.
Many other people have nearly died.
Once, a man suffering a stroke was loaded into a large truck and driven through floodwaters to Roosevelt Lake, where a boat carried him to an awaiting ambulance, Tonto Basin District Fire Chief Steve Holt said.
Another time in the 1990s, the local ambulance was destroyed when it was towed through the flooding creek by a tractor to help a patient, Holt said.
The population of the area, and the danger, has grown since then.
“It is amazing that we have not had injuries or deaths by first responders in my department and the county’s employees in the heroic efforts by all for these residents,” Holt said in a July application to the federal government seeking money to build a bridge over the creek.
The creek’s hazards are more widely known since Friday, when a family in a large, military-style flatbed truck got caught crossing a closed road through the water after heavy rain and snow fell across the state.
Two adults and four children from the Rawlings family were rescued, but three children who stayed in the cab were swept away.
Support for bridge dates to 1980s
State Route 188 runs north and south, parallel to and west of Tonto Creek, for several miles before the creek dumps into the north end of Roosevelt Lake.
The area north of the lake, and south of Payson, is known as Tonto Basin and is popular with retirees, fishermen, hunters and other outdoors lovers.
Some families living there have ranched the area since the 1800s.
Most of the area’s amenities are along SR 188, on the west side of the creek, but dozens of houses, as well as much of the open forest land, are across the creek.
Three main crossings exist, with no bridges. They are Greenback Valley Road, A-Cross Road, and Bar X Road, which is just south of the locally popular Butcher Hook restaurant.
The only other way in and out of the area east of Tonto Creek when it’s flooded is an hours-long detour on dirt roads.
Bar X is where the Rawlings family was attempting to cross when their vehicle was swept away.
Since the 1980s, county officials and residents have supported building a bridge to make crossing during floods safer.
None of the existing crossings is ideal for a bridge, but the county has identified an area in the north part of Tonto Basin, near the fire station and grade school, where a 1,981-foot concrete bridge could be built for about $20.5 million, though the price continues to increase as time passes.
“Gila County does not have funding to build the bridge,” Deputy County Manager Jacque Sanders said Monday. “We have been applying for federal grant opportunities since 2010 with the exception of 2013.”
In 2013, the county built a bridge over Oak Creek, east of Tonto Creek, to unify the communities that are cut off when the area floods.
That smaller bridge allows medical service throughout the isolated region. And it means that if a larger bridge is built across Tonto Creek, everyone on the east side will be able to access it.
Gila County proposes funding about $3 million of the Tonto Creek project with its own transportation taxes and its share of state gas taxes.
The most recent application to the U.S. Department of Transportation was rejected Nov. 12, Sanders said.
Crossing floodwater common
Because Tonto Creek floods so often, it is common for people to take risks getting across, officials said.
“There’s just some people you can’t stop from crossing that, regardless,” Holt said Monday.
People run out of groceries, or medicine, or propane for their homes, and drive across, he said.
Since 2013, the county has had to close the roads for as many as 75 days in a year, according to data Gila County submitted for the federal grant.
But even that doesn’t tell the whole story. Because even when the roads are open, the water can prevent small cars, pedestrians and bikes from getting across.
And floods also isolate people from first responders.
“Nobody over there is surprised,” Holt said of Friday’s tragedy. “Everyone is aware of the situation. Sometimes will be weeks at a time when you can’t cross it safely.”
During those times, the Fire District sometimes helps the locals move people across by shuttling them across the northern part of Roosevelt Lake by boat.
“When the lake is high enough to access Indian Point (Campground) by boat, that is the safest way to do things,” Holt said. “But it kills my budget when I have to do that.”
Barbara Godbold, who moved with her husband to the area in 1998 when he retired from the Phoenix Fire Department, said locals constantly must take risks to access their property.
“Every single person who lives on the east side of the creek goes around those closed signs,” she said.
Godbold has advocated for federal funding for a bridge for years and said she prepared materials for U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar’s office to seek federal aid for the project. She said she hasn’t heard from his office recently.
“Residents here have really been the backbone trying to get funding,” she said. “I feel like we are in a hole, trying to yell out and get people to pay attention, and it just doesn’t happen.”
The Arizona Department of Transportation is restricted to funding only state highway projects, but at least one lawmaker has raised the prospect of using state funds to build a bridge.
On Monday, state Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, said she would propose using state funds for a Tonto Creek bridge in the 2020 legislative session.
Schoolchildren take big truck
Since about 1970, rancher George Ewing has driven his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren from the east side of the creek across the water to Tonto Basin Elementary, when it’s made impassable to regular vehicles.
It started with a military truck that had been in his family for years. But the Tonto Apache Tribe donated $6,500 several years ago for him to buy a 1986, 5-ton military truck that locals refer to as the “GI,” to get kids to school.
It can carry more than 20 in the back, he said.
“When I take the kids across, I’ve already crossed it four or five times,” Ewing said Monday. “I already know if there are holes or soft spots. It’s not a fly by night. I’ve been doing with my kids since 1970.”
His truck is about twice the size of the family vehicle that ran into trouble Friday, he said.
He said he strongly supports a bridge to help the community, though he understands government agencies have many priorities to juggle.
“I would do everything within my power to make it happen if I had any say about it,” Ewing said.
Reach reporter Ryan Randazzo at email@example.com or 602-444-4331. Follow him on Twitter @UtilityReporter.
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