Planners of the BHGC Flood Control Project in the Phoenix area aimed for a rustication theme, evident in the two-barrel flume structure over the channel. Photos: John Lizvey
Workers check progress on the multiuse trail that runs the entire length of the corridor.

Flood control is a hard sell in a desert, says Scott Vogel. As a civil engineer with the Flood Control District of Arizona's Maricopa County, he knows what he's talking about.

Average annual precipitation in the Phoenix area is a mere 7.7 inches, but rain often arrives in brief, intense downpours known to dump nearly an inch of rain in five minutes. The challenge facing the county and the cities of Phoenix and Glendale is how to build substantial but rarely used flood control facilities without scarring the urban landscape. Vogel's philosophy: “Let's do what we can to make it into some other type of amenity, something attractive and more broadly functional.”

Hasan Mushtaq, floodplain manager for the city of Phoenix, agrees. “We're not just building flood control facilities; we are building multiuse facilities that provide flood control,” he said. “The public doesn't want to see just a channel carrying water, or a big hole in the ground holding water; they want to see some soccer fields, picnic shelters, children's playgrounds, and so forth.”

Disguising a flood control channel as a park sounds like a good idea, but designing and building such a facility can be challenging. For example, the Bethany Home/Grand Canal (BHGC) Flood Control Project is a $67 million, 10-year effort of planning, design, and construction inserting a 4½ mile stormwater drainage channel through parts of Phoenix and Glendale. As city and county officials prepared to present the idea to the public, they expected to face a variety of community questions. Citizens might worry about the safety of letting their children play in a park designed to flood, for instance. Also, as with any major infrastructure project, space would be needed.

“It was a long-term construction project that goes right through the heart of a developed area,” said Vogel. “One project segment required the acquisition of 72 homes. We knew up front that we'd better get as much public input as possible.”

Predesign Study

To the developers of this project, “public input” meant generating substantive involvement early enough in the process to ensure an acceptable design. Why, after all, spend time and money developing a technically sound design that would either be rejected outright or require extensive revision? Their predesign study—conducted with the help of Los Angeles-based consultants DMJM+HARRIS—was structured to define and design the preferred solution based on public input.

“The citizens were involved from the very beginning—from the day the project was announced,” said Glendale city councilwoman Joyce Clark, “and they did offer a great deal of input with regard to the design.” When she first got involved with the flood control project, Clark was a private citizen affiliated with the West Glendale Community Coalition. “All of the principals involved—the city of Glendale, the city of Phoenix, the consultants, the county flood control people—they actually listened to what we had to say as citizens and were extremely responsive.”

How did that work from the other side of the table? The consultant chosen to conduct the predesign study developed the following approach:

  • Bring the diverse stakeholders together early in the process
  • Gain input and support through continuous communication
  • Find appropriate compromises
  • Integrate and resolve the technical, financial, and procedural issues
  • Develop and present a practical engineering solution that will be widely accepted.
  • The approach was implemented through multipronged community outreach. Newsletters explained the need for the project, progress on design development, and opportunities for public input. In three successive public meetings (held in both Phoenix and Glendale), designers discussed options, questions, and suggestions with citizens. A Web site provided information, illustrations of potential designs, and an avenue for feedback. A 24-hour telephone hotline offered information updates.

    “This predesign study really helped shape the project and create the vision for the project,” said Jeff Minch, project manager for DMJM+HARRIS. The drainage channel would pass through a wide range of socioeconomic environments, from agricultural land to a wealthy neighborhood in which equestrian activity is common. Dividing the project into nine segments enabled designers to focus on the specific needs of each constituency, discuss objectives and constraints at public meetings, and develop solutions tailored to each neighborhood.

    “I think the early involvement helped create community buy-in to the project, because community members felt they had meaningful input,” said Minch. “They were glad to see that their input could influence these public projects.”