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A $90M project has begun to reduce post-wildfire flooding in Coconino County neighborhoods

Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly speaks to reporters in the Wupatki Trails neighborhood, the site of a major flood mitigation project, on Thu, May 25, 2023.
Ryan Heinsius/KNAU
Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly speaks to reporters in the Wupatki Trails neighborhood, the site of a major flood mitigation project, on Thu, May 25, 2023. He was joined by (from left) Coconino County Board Chair Patrice Horstman, Supervisor Jeronimo Vasquez and Small Business Administration Administrator Isabella Guzman. In the background is a family home that was flooded dozens of times during post-wildfire floods in the summer of 2022 that resulted from the Pipeline Fire.

Construction crews have begun a major flood mitigation project north of Flagstaff. It follows two devastating wildfires last summer that put some 1,500 homes in danger of catastrophic flooding.

Workers are digging a pair of massive canals through the Wupatki Trails neighborhood to channel floodwaters. Last summer, it was one of the most heavily impacted areas below the eastern slopes of the San Francisco Peaks. On the nearby Coconino National Forest 11 crews made up of about 100 people are restoring alluvial fans and completing other mitigation work. It’s all funded by more than $90 million approved by Congress in last year’s Omnibus spending bill.

"My hope is that for people who live right here, these folks that live in these homes, that the next time there is a big rainstorm for an hour up on the hill it’s not going to ruin their lives anymore," said Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, who advocated for the funding and toured some of the work Thursday.

Crews dig a massive canal to channel floodwaters in the Wupatki Trails neighborhood on Thu, May 25, 2023. It is part of a $90 million project to protect neighborhoods from post-wildfire flooding caused by the 2022 Pipeline Fire.
Ryan Heinsius/KNAU
Crews dig a massive canal to channel floodwaters in the Wupatki Trails neighborhood on Thu, May 25, 2023. It is part of a $90 million project to protect neighborhoods from post-wildfire flooding caused by the 2022 Pipeline Fire.

So far crews have repaired four of the nine watersheds on the peaks that were scorched by the 26,000-acre Pipeline Fire, but Coconino County officials say a significant amount of work remains ahead of this year’s monsoon season. Flooding threatens an estimated $1.3 billion worth of property in the area.

Coconino County flood managers have brought together many of the same construction experts who worked on flood mitigation following the 2010 Schultz Fire.

"What you see today is recovery in action. We have a ways to go but we have accomplished in a record-breaking time the essential help we need to develop the flood mitigation efforts for these communities," said Coconino County Board of Supervisors Chair Patrice Horstman.

Last year’s Tunnel Fire destroyed 31 homes and forced about 1,000 people to evacuate. Nearly two months later, residents evacuated again during the Pipeline Fire, which later caused 45 major flooding events and repeated closures of Highways 89 and 180.

Ryan Heinsius was named interim news director and managing editor in January 2024. He joined KNAU's newsroom as an executive producer in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Public Media Journalists Association Award winner, and a frequent contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and national newscast.