With both Coconino County and the city of Flagstaff having declared states of emergency due to flooding earlier this summer, some city staff may have found a silver lining. Now flooding is on everyone's mind.
Flooding is an issue that everybody forgets about when it is not happening Sara Dechter, the city’s comprehensive planning manger, said.
Dechter and her team have been working with residents to create a new Southside Neighborhood plan to help govern the future of the neighborhood and have started looking to residents to find out more about the flooding and storm water issues in the area.
So far, the city has identified five main issues related to flooding in the neighborhood, but solutions may still be years out.
“This is just the very first step of figuring out the how should we even try to address [Southside flooding],” Dechter said. “Then we still need to figure out how to get money for it, who funds it, where do we go from here, who do we get it approved by.”
The primary problem for the flooding in the Southside is its location in the floodplain. Nearly the whole neighborhood, and much of NAU, sits in an extremely vulnerable location should the city experience any kind of high precipitation.
This is an issue that the city has been working on, with the help of the Army Corps of Engineers, for almost 20 years now and with little progress so far. At the same time, the city has identified other issues that, although related, are more localized to the neighborhood.
Because so much of the neighborhood sits within the floodplain, many of the buildings throughout the Southside have development restrictions, city storm-water manager Jim Janecek said. Currently, any property that isn't elevated above flood waters is subjected to development restrictions preventing an investment of more than 50 percent of the value of the home.
For many current Southside residents or home owners, this restriction is not too relevant as 50 percent of the value of a home is still a very substantial investment, Janecek said. But for investors who may be looking at the neighborhood, this can pose a problem.
However, some historic buildings with an adequate structural integrity can be exempt from some of these restrictions.
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Even if regional flooding concerns are dealt with, the neighborhood still has local flooding and drainage issues and the Rio de Flag channel has not seen maintenance in recent years.
Because of the lack of adequate funding and personnel, the city has left much of the channel fairly unmaintained, Janecek said, meaning much of the channel running through the Southside is choked with sediment, grass and shrubbery.
The city may have trouble reversing this as almost all of the Rio de Flag channel running through the Southside is on private land.
Matthew Muchna, a project manager with the non-profit organization Friends of the Rio de Flag, said prior to the early 1900s, the Rio never ran through the Southside. The exact reasons may have been lost to history, but Muchna said it seems that the city rerouted the river through the neighborhood to avoid flooding in other areas of the city.
At the time the Rio was rerouted, the Southside was less affluent than other parts of the city and was made up primarily of minorities, Muchna said. Even today, the Southside has a higher percentage of minority residents than other parts of the city.
Additionally, the rerouted channel went through private property, where it remains to this day. The city does have an ordinance on the books requiring people to maintain the channel going through their property, but whether simply enforcing this ordnance would be enough to help solve the problem, or be fair to those residents, is up for debate.
As Deborah Harris, the president of the Southside Community Association’s board pointed out, many residents who own that property may not be able to maintain the channel themselves. And, Harris added, the issue of Rio flooding the Southside is a problem the city thrust on the neighborhood through the reroute, without the involvement of residents.
One thing the city will likely not do is to buy all the property along the Rio through the Southside in order to make the maintenance of the channel easier, Dechter said.
“The goal is not to give up on the Southside and these flooding issues because we created them, then we ignored them,” Dechter said.