Runoff from a monsoon downpour toppled a section of border fence west of the Mariposa Port of Entry overnight Saturday, sending a torrent of debris-filled floodwater down Ephriam Canyon and into yards and homes along Western Avenue.
Leyva Bridge on Western Avenue, just east of the intersection with Interstate 19, was a particular trouble spot. Tree branches, logs and other detritus clogged two culverts under the bridge, and the muddy floodwaters surged out of the wash and into surrounding properties, including that of Raul Origel, immediately south of the bridge.
Origel’s front yard was covered Sunday morning with mud and stones that had been used to line the nearby wash. The water also entered his elevated trailer, reaching a foot in depth and destroying furniture, he said. He does not have flood insurance.
Standing next to a Ford Taurus embedded in the mud – one of five vehicles he owns that were damaged by the flood – Origel complained that the authorities don’t keep the wash clean, which allows for the culverts to clog during heavy runoff.
“There has to be someone, either at the city or county, to take responsibility,” he said.
The downpour began at around 11:30 p.m. Saturday night and was accompanied by intense thunder and lightning. According to the Santa Cruz County Flood Control District, a gauge at Ephriam Canyon registered 1.14 inches from the storm, and another at the Mariposa Port of Entry tallied nearly an inch, as did several in Nogales, Sonora.
Floodplain Coordinator John Hays noted that heavy rain had also fallen in the area on Friday afternoon, "and it seems that the prior wetted conditions may have played a significant role in the flooding."
As runoff surged south through the border fence – a structure comprised of interconnected metal tubes with 4-inch gaps that allow water to pass through – debris apparently accumulated behind it, blocking flow creating enough pressure to eventually topple an approximately 60-foot length of the barrier.
From there, the water surged through a pair of culverts and into Ephriam Canyon, combining with more runoff and debris until the wash met Western Avenue at Leyva Bridge.
The segment of border fence that collapsed was built above an existing arroyo, with large gates at its bottom that were meant to be opened to relieve pressure from flooding. The gates did not appear to have been opened.
"The late hour and sudden onset of the storm did not allow adequate lead time for agents to safely release the gates," said Nicole Ballistrea, spokeswoman for the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector.
No injuries from the flooding were reported, but a family of five had to be rescued from their car near Leyva Bridge, said Nogales Fire Chief Hector Robles.
When an engine was unable to make it to the car on Western Avenue, NFD sent its Ladder One truck up Interstate 19 to reach the scene from the west. Firefighters then used the bucket at the end of the 101-foot ladder to rescue the family, Robles said.
The Southern Arizona Chapter of the American Red Cross said it is assisting 10 people – a family of seven plus an elderly couple and a single elderly person – whose homes were affected by the flooding in Nogales.
"We are providing temporary lodging, food and clothing and will have the families contact us tomorrow to see what other assistance can be made available to them," the organization said in a statement.
A woman at a property on the south side of the bend at Leyva Bridge said her aunt and uncle were evacuated from their home after floodwaters inside the residence reached the level of their midsections.
The woman, who did not wish to be named, allowed the NI access to her relatives’ mud-filled home on Sunday. Ruined furniture was strewn about the interior, including a refrigerator that had toppled over, and marks on the wall suggested the water had reached approximately 3 feet in depth.
Her aunt and uncle do not have flood insurance, the woman said.
Next door at the Cypress Trailer Park, residents were clearing away mud on Sunday morning and crossing their fingers that once-submerged cars would eventually start.
Three vehicles that had been parked outside Alma Alcaraz’s trailer were flooded and non-functioning, but the interior of her home, where she and four family members waited out the storm, remained dry.
“We stayed because we didn’t have any way to leave," Alcaraz said. “We were really nervous because we could feel the trailer moving.”
Those inside the trailer included two children, ages 5 and 7, she said.
Nancy Rodriguez, who rents a trailer at the park, said that once the rain started, she began taking regular peeks out her window at the wash. Once she saw the water breach the banks, she went to her car and tried to leave, but got stuck instead. So she drove it to higher ground at the park and waited out the storm in her trailer.
“It was very scary. I thought it was a dream or something,” she said.
The water never got into Rodriguez's home, but it left piles of debris underneath and a large log in her front lawn.
“I want the city to do something, because this happens every four years or two years,” Rodriguez said. “Every time it rains, this happens.”
She soon had a chance to deliver her complaints directly to Mayor Arturo Garino when he and Councilman Jose “Joe” Diaz arrived at the trailer park to assess the damage.
“This shouldn’t be happening,” Garino said. “I look at this, and just by the flow and the way the debris is leaning against the guardrails, it looks like the water was trying to get back into the channels. So I think the street was the channel – that’s the problem.
“The Leyva Bridge has to be addressed,” as does a bridge farther downstream near the Circle K, he said. “We need to be able to channelize the water and keep it inside. This is too much.”
Garino said he would put the issue on the agenda for the Aug. 6 city council meeting, and noted that the county government would need to participate in a solution, since it governs the county flood control district, of which Nogales is a part.
Reached by telephone, Deputy City Manager John E. Kissinger said Western Avenue was the only area in the city affected by overnight flooding, and acknowledged that the problem resulted from clogs at Leyva Bridge.
“We have reached out to the IBWC (International Boundary and Water Commission) and have assessed all the major washes in the area and any critical infrastructure that could affect the IOI (international sewage line) and found no problems,” Kissinger said.
Asked if the Santa Cruz County Flood Control District can do anything to prevent this type of problem on Western Avenue in the future, he said, “Other than clearing out the wash on this side I don’t suspect that there’s not much more you can do. I believe that that most of that debris came from Mexico. I’ve been out there hundreds of times and from the border to the hospital you do not see this type of debris – huge tree trunks, pallets, car doors, plastic bottles.
“It is typical of the first flooding or microburst episode to see these things accumulate," he said. "We don’t anticipate a repeat of flooding to this magnitude (this year) because the wash has essentially been flushed of the type of debris that has been accumulating throughout the year and that would cause the water to jump its banks.”
The flood control district developed a $3-million project to construct a detention or retention pond in the Ephriam Canyon area, but it is still in the design stage. Garino lamented the absence of a retention pond, saying: “The water flow was just a direct water flow. There was nothing really to hold the water back and let it come slowly.”
Local officials also need to seek support from Nogales, Sonora, since Ephriam Canyon originates on that side of the border, Garino said.
As for the now-wide-open gap in the border fence, Ballistrea, the Border Patrol spokeswoman, said agents had been deployed to the area to provide security until the fence is fixed.
"Contractors have assessed the damaged section of the fence and are developing a plan to initiate repairs," Ballistrea said. She could not immediately provide an estimate of the cost of the repairs.