Wash Worries

Will two new detention basins help Tucsonans avoid future flooding?

Monsoon rains brought flooding to much of Tucson this year, but other parts of town were spared: They benefited from large storm-water detention basins scattered around the community.

By next summer, one more should be in place, while construction continues on yet another new basin.

The Pima County Regional Flood Control District currently has four detention basins in its system--one along the Julian Wash on the southeast side; another for the southside Rodeo Wash; a third on Arroyo Chico that cuts through the center of town; and a huge basin near Ajo Way.

Suzanne Shields, the flood control district director, says the basins helped mitigate flooding this monsoon season.

The basins are used to hold large amounts of storm-water runoff for short periods of time to minimize flooding damage. Tucson's next detention basin will be part of the 350-acre "Bridges" project along Kino Parkway south of 36th Street. This basin will divide the residential and commercial components of the development, the latter of which includes a contentious "big box" store.

"Before we bought the property, the flood control district had plans for an enormous basin which wasn't particularly aesthetically pleasing," says Mike Baruch, director of land planning for KB Home. "We went to the county and made a deal not to have a giant hole in the ground."

Instead, Pima County will pay $5.5 million to grade a 25-acre detention basin that will weave its way through the "Bridges" before sending the water under Interstate 10 into the Tucson Diversion Channel, which runs into the Santa Cruz River. According to Shields, KB Home is donating the land for the basin and is landscaping it.

The detention basin will also serve as a link in an extensive trail system and will eventually include a small neighborhood park. Baruch says he hopes construction can begin this fall; and the Ashton Company should have all the dirt moved within four months of the starting date. The average depth of the basin, Baruch adds, will be about 8 feet, but the slopes into it will be gentle enough to walk on.

According to the "Bridges" adopted plan, the basin "will simultaneously serve the detention function ... as well as provide an important recreational and aesthetic amenity for the on-site users, off-site neighbors and the public at large."

That is also the intent of another large basin now under construction. It is being built by the flood control district at Tucson Unified School District's Cherry Field along Kino Parkway just south of Broadway Boulevard.

Using $20 million supplied by the federal government, this project is the long-awaited second phase of the central-city flood-control effort begun years ago with a basin on the Dell Urich golf course. That Arroyo Chico project shifted the wash's official 100-year flood plain, meaning hundreds of homes no longer had to purchase flood insurance.

Michael Allen, president of the Broadmoor-Broadway Village Neighborhood Association, has lived along Arroyo Chico since the early 1990s, or several years before the golf-course basin was completed.

"We never had flooding problems before the detention basin project," Allen recalls, "but I'm sure glad we don't have to pay for flood insurance. It was pretty expensive."

Original plans for Arroyo Chico further west called for additional work to be done both upstream and downstream of the Cherry Field basin. The federal money to do that work, however, hasn't been appropriated. Shields hopes it will be by the time the present project is finished near the end of 2008, so those proposed plans can be quickly implemented.

Anticipating the construction of three more small basins along the arroyo while also doing some work east of Kino Parkway and improving things on High School Wash near Tucson High School, Shields acknowledges that the U.S. Congress will have to come up with another $20 million to finish the project. If they do, she believes the Fourth Avenue business district, which suffered some flooding damage this summer, will be protected in the future.

Ted Warmbrand, a longtime critic of the Arroyo Chico project, questions that conclusion. "It depends on where the rain falls," he says.

Warmbrand lives near the wash west of Kino Parkway, but because of the topography, his house isn't in a flood plain. He thinks the detention basin is an attempt to "beautify" the arroyo and will bring unwanted property changes along with it.

"They're sacrificing the neighborhood to gentrification," he says of Pima County and the city of Tucson, which was initially the detention-basin project manager. "But I don't see the benefit to us. I think we're losing, and I'd like recognition of that."

Jacky Turchick, Warmbrand's wife, has another criticism: She says that when the project was under the control of the city, a citizens' committee was established to work on the proposal, but the county has not followed suit.

"They convene informational meetings," Turchick says of the county, "but the citizens committee could say, 'We want these things done.'"

Shields defends the present public-participation process, stressing the citizens' committee had lots of people involved, not just neighbors.

Warmbrand rejects that argument. "They clearly don't care what we feel," he says of county officials.