When it rains it pours. This is especially true for the Southside neighborhood as the Rio de Flag flows right through it. However, residents are drowning in something more dangerous than water.

Socio-economic issues have flooded the area for decades, and it is directly linked to the Rio de Flag’s capacity to manage overflowing water. Records from the City of Flagstaff show the Rio de Flag being present in Southside as far back as 1892.

Deborah Harris, the board president for the Southside Community Association, said that the flooding of the Rio de Flag is a social justice issue that everyone in Flagstaff should be concerned about.

“Our neighbors and community members should not have to live with this for over 100 years,” Harris said.

According to Caitlyn Burford, an environmental communications lecturer at NAU, the Rio de Flag was a naturally occurring canal that flowed through downtown. To avoid major floods in downtown, the canal was rerouted to the Southside neighborhood. This redirection created a series of much more narrow canals south of the train tracks, and those canals can’t hold the same amount of water without flooding.

Harris explained that because the Southside neighborhood resides in a floodplain the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requires homeowners to purchase flood insurance or raise their houses 6 feet above the ground.

It is to impossible build in a floodplain without considering the cost of flood insurance and the price of redeveloping. Most residents can’t afford the insurance coverage or the to lift their homes above the floodplain.

“You have these families that rely on fixed incomes that have to pay thousands of dollars a year extra,” Burford said. “This creates a huge financial burden.”

Additionally this neighborhood has historically been the most racially and ethnically diverse part of the city, providing homes to African Americans and whites, along with Latino and Indigenous people.

According to Ricardo Guthrie, the director of ethnic studies at NAU, development in the Southside neighborhood has struggled due to the threat of floods.

“It’s a direct suppression of growth and development in the Southside neighborhood,” Guthrie said. “It’s interesting that this issue impacts the most diverse demographic in the city.”

Guthrie added that planning wasn’t in place during the late 19th century to anticipate how the city could grow, and the neighborhood has become one of the more economically challenged regions in Flagstaff.

Harris said that long-term residents are taking their chances because a lot of them are living on fixed income, are retired, or rely on social security, and can’t afford to move out of the floodplain. When older residents pass away, their children inherit the house and they usually end up selling it to a developer.

Harris believes that people are getting taken advantage of by developers. Sometimes, sellers don’t get the full value because they only consider the cost of the home and not price of the land, which also increases its value.

As a result, developers like housing corporations are given a discounted rate as homeowners typically do not include the price of the land. This allows developers to make a larger profit. Additionally, new apartment complexes are able to be built on of the floodplain because the developers have the financial resources to pay for flood insurance.

Guthrie said there are more business owners than property owners in the area. He said that business owners want to do the right thing by redeveloping an area that’s artificially disadvantaged. Guthrie also pointed out that the biggest money is in housing developers because they know NAU students have no place to live, so they provide housing will continue as an economic lever for growth and development.

Both Harris and Guthrie have been working for years to try and resolve the issue by raising awareness in the community. They have concluded redirecting the Rio de Flag is a good first start.

According to Matthew Muchna, a project manager for the non-profit organization Friends of the Rio de Flag, the Rio de Flag is a needed channel for storm runoff in the Southside neighborhood. However, because it is inside a geographical basin, it attracts water from around the city and it becomes too much to contain.

Muchna and his colleagues at the Friends of the Rio de Flag have been working hard on viable solutions, and they have one ultimate goal in mind. Their plan is called the Rio Project, and it is focused on restoring and redirecting waterways in Flagstaff.

“That’s what the Rio Project is going to address,” Muchna said. “We need to redirect the channel, but there still needs to be flood management within the Southside neighborhood. The current channel needs relief.”

He suggested that the Rio de Flag needs to be moved closer to its original course by the railroad tracks to divert large scale flooding coming off the San Francisco Peaks and downtown.

However, the project will depend heavily on on federal funding, which requires annual submission of a cost-benefit ratio, which the federal government uses to allocate funding. This means that the project is competing on a national scale. Natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey and other catastrophes that occur around the country are usually prioritized when it comes to federal funding.

Muchna can feel a change in the tide, as he recalled the the Army Corps of Engineers taking a helicopter tour of the Rio a few months back. Apparently, the agency conveyed that they wanted to get this project done as soon as possible.

“Federal funding has kept this project on the back burner,” Muhcna said. “I’m hopeful that there’s some new momentum for the Rio Project so we can get a lot of these folks out of the floodplain, and get them out of paying the FEMA flood insurance.”

Deborah Harris, the board president for the Southside Community Association, said she would like to see it fixed so that it does not negatively impact people's’ quality of life, but is not sure if there’s a perfect solution. Guthrie explained that the costs of fixing the problem are expensive and are so prohibitive that residents are wary about possible resolutions.

Muchna said if the Rio de Flag is redirected, it will take the Southside neighborhood out of the floodplain. Once its out of the floodplain, residents are no longer required to have expensive flood insurance. However, this could lead to other problems.

This might potentially make the neighborhood more popular to live in, and it may push long time residents out. Consequently, it could open up the neighborhood to further gentrification and more rapid increase in terms of the cost of living and housing.

Muchna said that it is necessary to guarantee the security of those residing in the floodplain, but it has to be done smartly and have a plan for those long-term residents.

“The social vulnerabilities need to be recognized and planned for,” Muchna said. “We have to put some system in place so that people get a fair value for their home, and they need the opportunity to stay if they want to.”

Harris said diverting the river will impact the railroad tracks by causing more flooding to occur around them, but added that Amtrak has the resources to handle it. To solve the issue, everyone involved needs to work together. She expressed that people should no longer punished for living on the river.

Guthrie said if everything goes to according to plan, there’s still no way of knowing how long it would take. He fears that it will take a severe emergency to address the issue and get recognition from the federal government.

There are a variety of people trying to resolve the issue and wash away the problem that has been floating in the Southside neighborhood for over a century.

“Residents in the Southside have historically been marginalized and discriminated against,” Muchna said. “Still to this day, there’s injustice with the fact that the Rio de Flag hasn’t been fixed.”