After it winds through Flagstaff, squeezing between homes, under roads and through culverts, the Rio de Flag ends up on the eastern edge of the city.
Here, boulders decorated with ancient petroglyphs rest in the shadows of construction trucks, and wildlife tracks appear just feet from a Cemex building materials work yard.
Here, the industrial uses that have been pushed to the city’s edge run up against, and tumble into, a rare ribbon of riparian habitat.
“A lot of this area was taken for granted as a trash dump for a long number of years,” said Andy Bertelsen, the county’s director of public works.
This is also the place where the city of Flagstaff has spent the better part of the past decade restoring the Rio de Flag’s path, step by step. The final vision is to extend the Flagstaff Urban Trail System for 3.3 miles along the newly restored riparian area. The trail would connect Doney Park to the existing FUTS trail near the Flagstaff Mall and wind through Picture Canyon Natural and Cultural Preserve.
The city started its Rio de Flag restoration efforts just downstream of Wildcat Hill Wastewater Treatment Plant. The first phase of the project created a wetlands area, established native plants and did grading work to restore the natural floodplain where the river’s path had essentially become a ditch cutting through the landscape, said David McKee, with the city of Flagstaff’s stormwater management department.
The second phase of the project is upstream from Wildcat and closer to Old Route 66. This stretch of the river, which curves around the Cemex building materials site, was littered with debris from an old landfill and overrun with invasive plant species, said Mark Wirtanen, an engineering technician with Natural Channel Design, which did most of the restoration work. Volunteers collected eight tons of trash from the area.
City contractors then recreated a more natural floodplain, including depressions for ephemeral wetlands to form. They also removed invasive plants and planted more than 200 species of native grasses and trees. The dirtwork included paving a path for the future FUTS alignment and building up earthen embankments to provide a buffer between the ephemeral river and the industrial uses that crowd its banks.
The stretch of the Rio de Flag watershed between the two restored areas is what the city has its eye on next. The parcel is part of the Coconino County Public Works Yard and over the years some areas have become more construction zone than riparian habitat. A road was built across the ephemeral river’s path, for example, as was a turnaround circle and a standpipe to dispense reclaimed water from the city’s treatment plant.
Asked how those developments came about, Dustin Woodman, the county’s engineering division manager, said much of it happened before state and federal waterway and floodplain regulations.
“Fifty years ago things were different. Upstream was essentially a dumping ground that wouldn’t ever be allowed today,” he said.
The county is considering several options for restoring the waterway, including removing the turnaround circle altogether, relocating the standpipe and potentially even removing the asphalt road that crosses through the river’s course.
The hope is to design a restoration plan this fall and start construction next spring or early summer, Woodman said. Estimates peg the cost of the work at $400,000 to $500,000, which would likely come out of state gas tax revenues that are distributed to counties.
But fully returning the area to its natural state is likely an unrealistic goal, Woodman said.
“We’re trying to do a level of restoration that brings the Rio back to some semblance of its natural and historical state but we’ll never be able to restore the entire thing. This is an industrial area,” he said.
The final phase of the restoration work will require the city to either purchase or gain access to 13 acres of relatively untouched state trust land that abuts Old Route 66. But that is even further in the future, McKee said.
Connecting the community
Tying the river restoration projects together is the final goal of extending the Flagstaff Urban Trail System from the Flagstaff Mall through Picture Canyon to Townsend Winona Road, where it would connect to the Doney Park area. Construction of the trail is slated for 2022 and 2023, but that could get moved up depending on how quickly Rio de Flag restoration projects move along, said Martin Ince, multimodal transportation planner with the Flagstaff Metropolitan Planning Organization.
Picture Canyon is already a natural destination for people, so if the city can make it possible to get there by biking or walking, that’s even better, Ince said.
A path that connects the Route 66 path to Doney Park could also be a valuable part of the community’s transportation network, he said.
“How cool would it be to be able to go through Picture Canyon on your way to work?” Ince said.
Letting nature do the work
Recreating the Rio’s natural riparian area not only revives and beautifies a place historically dominated by industry, it also restores the river’s ability to deal with flooding, McKee said.
“This is the main conveyance of all of the drainage in Flagstaff, so it better work,” he said.
Thus far, restoration costs have added up to $628,000 plus in-kind matching donations from the city, McKee said. But that’s a fairly low cost compared to the $92 million that the Rio de Flag flood control project through Flagstaff's core is expected to cost.
“We’re restoring more natural processes,” he said.