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Rising Waters

Rising Waters

JOEL SKARNIKAT
IMCOM/Garrison Safety Office
Fort Huachuca, Arizona

That August day began clear and sunny — typical of the early summer mornings in the desert of southwestern Arizona. I took a deep breath of the morning air as I stepped from my car in the office parking lot. I was in my first week of employment on Fort Huachuca and it was finally Friday. What a start to the day.

By late morning, ominous cumulus cloud buildup began across the area as the day heated and the air rose and condensed. Across the Huachuca Mountains, the sky darkened and distant thunder rumbled. Rain started falling high up in the mountains that afternoon, yet the San Pedro Valley and Fort Huachuca were still dry when I left work at the garrison safety office about 1530.

After being stuck inside the office most of the day, I desperately wanted to roll down the windows and take a relaxing drive before heading home. I hatched a quick plan: I would take the range road to Garden Canyon in the southern half of the post. I had heard it was a scenic area and held some protected petroglyphs that I should see.

The road has several improved low water crossings as it winds through the alluvial fans of eroded material along the eastern flanks of the mountains. All of these were dry as I proceeded up the canyon. The sun was still shining when I stopped at a picnic area in the canyon to stretch my legs and take in the scenery.

Within two minutes of stopping, the weather rapidly changed and the situation degraded in front of my eyes. Up the canyon, another low water crossing in the road immediately filled with rushing, debris-choked water. I watched in amazement as the once passable dip in the road became an intense flow 3 to 5 feet deep. Any person caught crossing at that moment would certainly be in danger.

I quickly started driving back down the canyon, hoping to beat the rushing water that would cut off my egress. Rounding a corner to the next crossing, my fears were realized. I was trapped. I could not get out of the canyon until the water receded. From my tactical driver training in the Army, I was well aware that attempting to drive across the swollen stream would result in disaster. Only after an hour of waiting did water levels subside so I could safely cross and head home.

Lessons learned

Low water crossings are often a hidden hazard on our installations and can take property and lives without warning during flash flood events. Fort Huachuca, situated at 4,400 feet in southern Arizona, contains 307 identified low water crossings throughout the cantonment and ranges. These low-lying topographical areas often see water drainage during heavy rainfall from seasonal monsoon rains and can swell to dangerous levels, often in a matter of minutes. With such swift-moving currents, the flood waters during these events may contain large amounts of debris and material, further adding to the hazard.

Here is some useful information that can help you avoid being trapped by rising waters:

  • It only takes about 1 to 2 feet of swift-moving water to float and move most vehicles, including SUVs.
  • Just 6 inches of fast-moving flood waters can knock you off your feet.
  • Never drive around barricades, into underpasses or over low water crossings when thunderstorm warnings are present.
  • Beware of distant thunderstorms, especially if they're over mountains. Flash flooding can occur many miles away from the thunderstorm as the runoff flows into the valleys and deserts.
  • Do not camp overnight or park your vehicle along or near streams and washes during monsoon season.

Monsoon flooding is a seasonal reality for many southern Arizona residents. From the beginning of July until the end of September, the region receives 80% of its annual rainfall. As a new employee on Fort Huachuca, I should have familiarized myself with local hazard awareness before taking that drive.

  • 18 June 2023
  • Author: USACRC Editor
  • Number of views: 161
  • Comments: 0
Categories: Off-DutyPMV-4
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