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Flagstaff flood control project nears completion, on paper if not in reality

Flagstaff flood control project nears completion, on paper if not in reality

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Flagstaff Flooding

Flood waters impact drivers near the Village Inn on Route 66 in Flagstaff during a monsoon storm in July 2018.

Flagstaff mayor Coral Evans and councilmember Chalrlie Odegaard, along with interim city manager Barbara Goodrich and deputy manager Shane Dille are leaving on a trip to Washington D.C. today, to lobby on the city’s behalf.

One way the city could benefit from the trip is if city officials are able to secure additional funding for the Rio de Flag flood control project. The project, which has been in the works for the last 15 years, is a collaboration between the city and the Army Corps of Engineers, with the hope of mitigating the effects that a large flood could have on the city.

Large swathes of downtown, the west side and campus sit within the flood plain and would be threatened should the city experience a 100-year flood -- which refers to a flood that has a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year.

But now, the project is finally nearing the end of preproduction, and on Aug. 23 the city and Army Corps gave the go-ahead for the finalization of project plans by Tetra Tech, a consultant helping with the design process.

City engineer Rick Barrett has been working on the project since its inception and said, should everything go as planned, the plans would be completed by August of 2020.

Prior to this, the plans and design work for the project have been about 90 percent complete, Barrett said, but until now, there has not been the money to get those plans 100 percent done.

But Barrett said this is also the best case scenario. The city and Corps have 38 tasks that need to be accomplished to get the plan finalized, and Barrett said any of them might take longer than expected and further delay the whole project.

For example, Barrett pointed to the negotiations with BNSF Railway over how the project may affect the railway, including potentially buying property from BNSF for the project. The plan gives 306 days to the project but these negotiations could easily take longer than anticipated.

And even then, only the design plans are completed for the project. If funding for the project has not been found by that point, those plans will have to be delayed until funding is secured.

“At this point, we would let the plans sit on a shelf until funding was available,” Barrett said. “So there may be a gap before construction actually starts.”

This presents a potential problem should the project go unfunded for some time. If regulations governing flood plains change in the intervening years, it could make the plans obsolete, forcing the city to get plans back up to full completion.

“Even here in the city of Flagstaff, when we approve someone’s project, it’s only good for a year because we recognize that our codes may change,” Barrett said. “And you’re always running with the risk of 'what if a 100-year flood hits me in the meantime.'”

The main reason the project has taken so long, Barrett said, is due to the lack of any concrete funding.

The project has never been supported in the president’s budget and thus has never had a consistent stream of funding. Instead, the project has been relying on whatever it can get to keep it going, either from small amounts of Army Corps discretionary spending or occasional congressional earmarks, the latter of which have become far less common in recent years.

But once the plans have been finalized, getting attention and money from the federal government may become somewhat easier.

“If it hadn’t been for the lobbying efforts of our mayor, we may not have gotten it funded, so we got enough funding to complete the 100 percent design and that’s a big thing,” Barrett said. “Because what we hope can happen out of the 100 percent design is [we can] try to find ways to value engineer it.”

Work by the Army Corps is more likely to receive presidential funding if the benefits outweigh the costs. But at the moment, analysis has shown that this is not yet the case for Rio de Flag flood control. In other words, it may be cheaper to simply rebuild much of the town in the case of a flood than pay for the project.

That may not mean much to someone with the potential of losing their house, livelihood and belongings in a flood, but when it comes to funding, it can be the difference between a project that stays on paper and one that sees reality.

With the plans complete, Barrett said they may be able to find ways to cut costs, potentially through cheaper construction methods, and reduce costs so they are at least at parity with the benefits.

However, the cost-benefit analysis was conducted shortly after the 2008 financial crisis, when property values were lower than other years. Because of this, the analysis may have undervalued what would be affected by a large flood.

Adrian Skabelund can be reached at the office at askabelund@azdailysun.com, by phone at (928) 556-2261 or on twitter @AdrianSkabelund.

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