AZTEC — Homeowners perched in the foothills above Aztec High School are still struggling to reclaim a sense of normalcy after two September storms caused severe damage to properties and streets.
Mired in the insurance claims process, two families who live on either side of Blanco Arroyo says that the city's failure to regularly clean out the waterway that overtopped during heavy rains last month made their ordeals worse.
Jason and Tammy Thompson are still scrambling to clean up the damage that storms caused to their East Blanco Street home and property. Filing insurance claims and calling contractors is a challenge, but the couple contends the ordeal would be easier if the city had properly maintained the Blanco Arroyo that runs alongside their property.
"I called the Army Corps after the storms and got an official there to come down to tour this neighborhood," Jason Thompson said. "City people came along and the first question the Army Corps guy asks is, 'Why was (the arroyo) not maintained?' And the city just said they don't have it in writing. A bit of a disappointment, you know?"
Jason Thompson, a dispatch officer at Triple S. Trucking and a ditch commissioner for the Aztec Ditch Company, believes the city can and should do more. He said that he often pays independent workers out-of-pocket to have cottonwood trees and debris cleared in the section of the arroyo alongside his property.
The last time the city cleaned out the arroyo was in 2008, he said.
"C'mon, that ain't right," he said. "(City Manager) Josh Ray, I feel for him. I think he walked into a can of worms. But what (is the city) going to do from here?"
Ray disputes Thompson's account of the meeting with the Army Corps official.
"The Army Corps manages how the arroyos can be maintained and does not allow the city to get in and do what we want to do," Ray said in a text message. "The flood damage was horrible, and the city is working now to clean up the items the Army Corps has given us permission to do and to develop an action plan moving forward."
Ed Kotyk, projects manager for Aztec, argues the city cannot perform routine maintenance of Blanco Arroyo because the waterway flows along private land.
"The city would need an easement granted from each resident to get permission to go in and do that work," Kotyk said. "A lot of arroyos throughout the city are like that."
Ray promised a more active role in getting that permission.
"We want to work with the property owners to eliminate any future flooding," he said. "We will be actively seeking those easements, which we do not currently have and hope that the property owners will work with us."
Chris Wrbas, senior project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' office in Durango, Colo., is responsible for issuing permits for the Albuquerque district, which includes San Juan County. A staff member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who was reached on Thursday said that Wrbas could not be reached for comment because of the government shutdown.
Dennis and Carissa Sparks have resorted to living in the family's mobile trailer since September storms overtopped Blanco Arroyo, which runs behind their Creekside Village Court home.
A gaping hole in the Sparks' backyard fence was caused by rushing waters that overtopped the arroyo in September, sending a wall of water into their yard before breaking open a driveway fence and rushing down their street.
Today, the neighborhood that the Sparks and Thompsons share, located behind Aztec High School, is still blanketed in sand and dotted with piles of debris. And that is after the city already hauled off dozens of dump truck loads of silty sand and debris.
"The water came up over 4 feet along the back of our house," said Carissa Sparks of the storm that did the most damage to her family's home. "It was so powerful that it actually lifted a neighbor's one-ton truck and sent it crashing into another car."
The onslaught of flash-flood waters was so strong that Carissa Sparks suited up her two sons in life jackets and sat with them on the family's kitchen counter to wait for the water to subside.
Since the floods, the Sparks have stayed in motels, their travel trailer and at a relative's home in Bayfield, Colo.
"When you're in a situation, you have to keep a degree of normalcy for the kids, but it's a lot and expensive," Carissa Sparks said.
She says the city did its part in the weeks following the two September storms, but agrees with the Thompsons that the lack of stewardship of the arroyo has been a disappointment.
Across from city hall, on low-lying ground, Mike and Vikki Flanary own and operate Mike's ATVs on Ash Street.
Vikki Flanary spends most of her working hours greeting customers and running the office while her husband works on engines. But lately, she has found herself pulling up carpet and monitoring a ditch that runs behind the couple's small-engine repair shop.
On Thursday, after rains returned to the area, the Flanarys once again saw water come in through the walls.
"We're closing due to the roof and walls leaking to try to get all our stuff upstairs," Vikki Flanary said. "We've got three shop vacs running. It's like one day at a time here -- or, in this case, one hour at a time."