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City, County face potential lawsuit over response to flash flooding in Flagstaff

Posted at 12:12 PM, Jun 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-27 16:02:36-04

FLAGSTAFF, AZ — City and county officials in Flagstaff are facing a potential lawsuit over their response to flash flooding down the burn scars of a 2019 wildfire.

ABC15 has learned through a public record request that four families have filed a Notice of Claim against the City of Flagstaff and Coconino County related to the flood events last year.

There are 800,000 sandbags across the area where flooding poses the biggest risk down the Museum Fire burn scars. The sandbags have been used as protection against unpredictable floodwaters as they come down a nearby wash, and into their neighborhoods.

The claim talks about how the sandbags cut off residents’ access to their homes and driveways, The monsoons of Summer 2021 easily and consistently overran the sandbags and barriers at many properties, leading to extensive property damage that, for some residents, was worse as a result of the County and City’s mitigation measures.

There have been four flash flooding events down the burn scars into neighborhoods like Mt. Elden Estates and the Sunnyside neighborhoods.

The claim writes that the culvert system at Linda Vista Drive and Spruce Wash was sized too small, and covered with a grate that was poorly designed, relative to the amount of water that comes through that wash.

AWD Law, the firm representing the families, used an independent engineering firm called West Consultants, who specializes in hydraulics, hydrology, flood hazards, and sediment transport to evaluate the flood events last summer. The firm wrote a Letter of Opinion that said the public improvements by the City and County, increased the flooding and the risk of the flooding to each of the Claimants.

The opinion goes on to say that the placement of the barriers and sandbags made the floodwaters more intense, the placement of concrete barriers other mitigation upstream from the Claimants’ properties that channeled the floodwaters such that they hit the culvert and Claimants’ homes with more force, speed, and height than would have occurred absent the barriers.

FLOODING EVENTS:

The Mt. Elden Estates neighborhoods and those south of them have seen four flash flooding events down the burn scars. The first flood events happened on July 13 and 14, followed by July 22-24, and August 17th.

For the past month, neighbors in the area have been preparing for monsoon storms.

People who live on Grandview Drive, along with volunteers, started to put out new sandbags along their property line.

There are around 400 homes and 35 businesses that are in the Museum Flood area. Last year dozens of those properties flooded as a result of heavy storm systems.

“My biggest question is how long will we have to keep these sandbags cause as you can see it’s not attractive,” said Greg Hancher, who experienced flooding last summer.

“It looks like the whole neighborhood looks like we’re in a combat zone,” he said.

When it comes to mitigation, the Notice of Claim questions what the long-term plan is, the City and County have no answers except to say that their official recommendation is to leave the bags and barriers up all year—for years and years (eight years is one estimate) to come.

People like Megan Kelly who live in the path of the floodwaters are hoping for a better solution, “its really to come in when you don’t live here, sandbags, that’s great, but it’s not actually great.

The bags can be seen deteriorating from the weather elements and needing to be replaced. The filling of the bags, cinders, can be seen in people’s yards as the bags break apart.

Kelly said the debris gets inside her home, “it’s just a mess, no one wants to live on a street like this.”

MITIGATION PROJECTS:

Officials with the City and the County have worked on a number of mitigation projects in the area which includes widening sections of the Spruce Avenue wash, reducing the amount of sediment at the top of the burn scar, widening a culvert system, and adding a detention basin.

The Alluvial Fan Restoration and Sediment Reduction project is being led by the Coconino County Flood Control District — officials tell ABC15 that the project is trying to decrease how much sediment goes down the path, as it would decrease the volume of the flooding.

ABC15 asked Christopher Tressler, Coconino County’s Engineer, how much sediment is being removed by this project, “I don’t have the numbers right now,” he said, “we can get those to you from the engineers that are helping design this.”

More than a week later, we received no response to our question on how much this project will help.

Tressler says though that it will be a significant amount that will decrease that bulking effect of the flood flows.

Officials with the City of Flagstaff have worked to widen the Spruce Avenue Wash, have put in a detention basin, and put in a larger box culvert at Dortha Avenue.

The new 12’ X 8’ concrete box culvert has been widened along Dortha Street as the system becomes overwhelmed with flood waters, pushing water into nearby homes in Sunnyside.

However, despite this upgrade, other culverts up and down stream still need the same updates.

“We can only do so much,” said Scott Overton, the public works director for the city.

When asked if the projects will be enough he responded, “no, not likely, in fact we’re dealing with the unknown which is Mother Nature."

ABC15 went along with Dr. Ben Ruddell from NAU, a hydrologist, and licensed civil engineer to the Spruce Avenue wash where the flood waters overwhelm the system.

“It could be enough, if we’re lucky,” said Ruddell.

We asked Ruddell, in his opinion, if the projects would be enough, “Channel cleaning, flood walls, new culverts, some flood plain restoration, it’s just not enough to overcome something that’s now 100 times worse,” he said.

Ruddell emphasized that a lot of the homes and businesses would not be located where they are today if modern construction standards and codes were used, “what needs to happen is for parts of the neighborhood and the businesses in this flood plain to be removed, actually taken out so the whole flood plain could be restored.”

That of course would cost a lot of money and would have to be done by elected leaders.

SIRENS IN PLACE:

Along with improvements, safety upgrades have been added that include a siren alert system to notify families that flooding is coming down the mountain.

The siren system just had testing done on Friday that alerted neighborhoods in both English and Spanish.

“Four elevated high power speaker arrays will be installed throughout the Grandview Homes and Sunnyside neighborhoods and will emit alarm sounds and voice messages when rain thresholds are triggered within the Museum Fire burn scar," a press release stated.

Despite the safety alert system in place, neighbors already fear the unknown, "we're really in the dark for what’s going to happen," said Hancher.