Coconino County holds sediment reduction meeting

Spectators on Matt Kelly Urban Trail Bridge watch smoke rise from a wildfire July 21, 2019. 

The National Weather Service has indicated Arizona will have above average monsoons in 2022. On April 6, Coconino County Board of Supervisors shared plans for the upcoming flood season to reduce damages caused by sediment in the Museum Flood area. 

Coconino County can move forward with several projects in preparation for monsoon season, as it allocated $7 million in federal aid for watershed restoration and flood mitigation work.

District 1 Supervisor and Chair of the Board, Patrice Hortsman, introduced the speakers. First to speak was Flood Control District Director Lucinda Andreani, who said while the Board of Supervisors are very close to finalizing plans. They are waiting to begin work until they gain approval from various federal agencies. 

“The Wash [Spruce Wash watershed] is considered what’s called a Waters of the United States (WOTUS) and so they have jurisdiction over that channel, over portions of that channel,” Andreani said. “And therefore we have to secure a permit.”

WOTUS, also known as the “Clean Water Rule,” was published in 2015 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to better establish water resource management in the U.S. Until Coconino County is able to secure approval from USACE, it will not be able to begin many of the approved projects.

“It’s a very intense process and we’re in an extremely tense period right now trying to get projects in construction,” Andreani said. 

While Coconino County is still awaiting a permit from USACE, Andreani said the county has secured all the cooperative agreements except one. Cooperative agreements are given to landowners who own property that is vulnerable to flooding, debris flows and erosion. The county is unable to begin work on a landowner’s property without a signed cooperative agreement. 

Following Adreani, Allen Haden from Natural Channel Design (NCD) walked attendees through the design process for Mt. Elden Estates as well as properties upstream. Haden said he wanted to provide people with a feel for what is coming their way.

“The water will continue to come but we are trying to get it so it doesn’t carry so much sediment and the cleanup afterward is not so bad,” Haden said.

Haden described NCD’s efforts as a sediment reduction process. Current plans will increase sediment storage and decrease the transport downstream. Furthermore, Haden said NCD will attempt to mitigate the impact to roadways and utilities. 

“Road crossings are problematic,” Haden said. “They are soft, they erode, they source sediment downstream and they provide a maintenance headache going forward.”

Before the monsoon season begins, NCD is working to prepare Coconino County residents with the best possible road crossings. These road crossings will be designed so individuals can effectively get their cars across, Holden said. 

NCD is also responsible for making sure the road crossings pass the water and stay in place. It’s meant to hold the grade of that channel in place and keep it from degrading.

Flagstaff Deputy District Ranger Nicholas Mustoe also spoke at the meeting. Mustoe said he was there to share where the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) currently stands in its process. 

During fall 2021, USFS Chief Randy Moore visited Flagstaff and, after viewing some of the flood-affected properties, committed $3.5 million of funding to be spent on the forest. Mustoe said as soon as the forest service had that information, it began working on the process through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

After creating a proposed action, the forest service released it for a scoping period for 30 days. Mustoe said the response during that period was overwhelmingly positive. 

“One of the steps of NEPA is that we can determine that we’re in a categorical exclusion, which basically means that this is an action that the agency has taken hundreds of times and found it to have no negative environmental impact,” Mustoe said. “That allows us a faster timeline in responding to these project proposals.”

Moreover, after the scoping period, the proposal was given a tribal consultation. In Coconino County, there are 13 tribes who consider the San Francisco Peaks to be sacred. 

“We allowed a comment period for tribal comments, and did not receive any comments from the tribes in this project,” Mustoe said. 

After Mustoe finished speaking, the meeting opened up to questions from the audience. One resident thanked the panel for its efforts and shared concern over low water crossings, asking if there is a possibility these will further spread water and sediment.

Haden said this happens in special cases, but is not considered normal. Certain proposed precautions and infrastructure can only be built in landscapes that are able to support it, Haden said. 

The meeting is available on YouTube for those interested who were unable to attend. 

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