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  • Natives know better than to dismiss the power of floods

    The Way We Were logo

    By Tom Prezelski

    Pima County natives, and most long-time residents, have all experienced explaining to some relative newcomer the folly of dismissing our local streams as mere channels unworthy of the designation of “creek” or “river.” FloodingThose of us who have witnessed the power of thousands of cubic feet per second of turbid water rushing downstream tend to look askance at folks who do not take the power of the fabled chubasco seriously, particularly when we hear them deride local preparations for flooding here in the Sonoran Desert as somehow silly or wasteful.

    Folks who have been around long enough will tell you about the big flood of October 1983. That year’s unusually wet monsoon season was followed by Tropical Storm Octave, a cyclone which originated off the Pacific coast of Mexico. While we in landlocked Arizona do not face the same annual suspense that people in Florida or the Carolinas do during hurricane season, it is worth remembering that we are still close enough to the sea that such storms are a threat from time to time.

    In Tucson, the rain associated with Octave started coming down at 5:40 p.m. on Sept. 28 and continued with occasional brief breaks for most of the next four days. As much as eight inches of rain came down in the Tucson area, though in some parts of the state the amount was even higher. The Rillito and the Santa Cruz would swelled up to their highest crests ever, as much as eight feet higher than recorded before, exceeding their banks and cutting new channels up to 100 feet wider than they had been previously. For a brief time, Tucson was a virtual island as approaches to bridges were washed away even as the structures themselves remained standing.

    In the end, eight Arizona counties, including Pima, were declared federal disaster areas. An estimated 10,000 Pima County residents were left temporarily homeless and property damage was estimated at $226 million. Houses and even major portions of subdivisions were washed away. Footage of an office complex, undermined by flood waters, collapsing into the Rillito, was a staple on local television for years afterward.

    The flood brought a new focus to the ongoing debate about development in Pima County. Post-mortem analysis criticized the county’s preparation for such a potential event as piecemeal at best, though this, as we will see, was not entirely fair, and many residents questioned the wisdom of allowing construction in areas so predictably prone to damage. On the other side, those who favored a more laissez-faire approach to development insisted that this was a fluke, a notion based on what was perhaps an intentional misunderstanding of the concept of the “100 year flood.”

    Pima County, for its part, had only gotten into the business of mitigating flood risks fairly recently, having been authorized to do so by a series of bills coming out of the State Legislature starting in 1973. Major floods in Pima County, particularly one associated with a tropical storm in 1977, provided the needed additional political impetus, and the Pima County Flood Control District was formed in 1978. Funded by a special property tax, the district is overseen by the County Board of Supervisors who also act as the board for the district.

    The District’s earliest projects included construction of bank protection. Previously, this was inconsistent including, occasionally, unauthorized projects by individual property owners that varied from concrete embankments to buried piles of junk cars. Few of these fared well in the long run. The District pioneered the use of soil cement, which uses material on site, providing both cost savings and Floodingsomething more aesthetically pleasing than a concrete wall. Only a small portion of this was completed by the time of the 1983 flood, though estimates are that the $4 million spent prevented as much as $20 million in damage. Use of this sort of bank protection continues to this day.

    In the wake of the flood, Supervisor David Yetman, who is credited with having brought an environmental consciousness to the Board, questioned whether it might be more cost effective to simply buy flood-prone land to retire it from development rather than investing millions in constructing sometimes very elaborate flood control measures. Since 1984, the county has purchased over 7000 acres of land this way. Much of it is now being used for parks.

    Drought conditions have prevailed in the years since, so a regional scale event along the lines of the 1983 flood has not happened. Enough events similar in intensity, though on a more localized scale, have occurred to let us know that our investment as a community has been worthwhile. A healthy respect for the power of these storms has served us well and needs to continue.

    Photos from Arizona Daily Star.

    Pima County FYI is featuring a monthly column on some of the history behind the people and places of Pima County, written by Tom Prezelski. Prezelski is a Tucson native and former member of the Arizona House of Representatives. His first book, Californio Lancers: The 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry in the Far West is a finalist for the 2016 Latino Book Awards.
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