Monday, July 04, 2005

A River Runs Through It--Again

This week's column, about the restoration of Fossil Creek, was some 6 years in the making. Fossil Creek is a perennial desert stream that flows from a spring located just below the Mogollon Rim to the Verde River. For the past century, the water just downstream from the spring has been diverted to two small hydroelectric plans, which were important about a century ago for the copper mines, but the mines have long since been played out in the area and the successor power company, Arizona Public Service, has moved on to coal, natural gas, and being (I recall) the nation's largest commercial nuclear power producer.

APS, to its very great credit, decided in 1999 that it would be better--for the state and for the company and its shareholders--to close the plants, which represent such a small part of the generation capacity and which tie up transmission capacity, which is what's in shorter supply in Arizona, and return full flows to Fossil Creek. I've spent the last 6 years as local counsel for American Rivers, working with APS, the other environmental partners, and government agencies; for those of you who deal with FERC on a daily basis, you have my admiration. APS also made a decision that a company not based here might not have made; it shows the vital importance of having "headquarters companies" in Arizona, which has traditionally (and increasingly) been a "branch office" state.

The column (the newspaper version is here) appears to be the only mention of Fossil Creek in the Tribune. I did a search of the electronic version and didn't find anything using the search term "Fossil Creek," so without a prior news story about restoration of Fossil Creek, I spent a lot of time giving the background. But if you want to see some pictures or learn even more about restoration of Fossil Creek, here are some links from APS, American Rivers, and some other folks:

American Rivers press release on Sen. McCain committing to introduce a Wild & Scenic status bill for Fossil Creek (with links worth checking out).
AZ Game & Fish Department press release.
The Nature Conservancy press release.
Arizona Republic article from June 19.
APS 1999 press release announcing the memorandum of understanding.
APS 2005 joint press release announcing restoration of flows.

As much as I think McCain has planted himself firmly in the right-wing-wacko camp, as much as it appears that there's no water, no matter how foul, that he won't carry for Bush, every now and then he does something good that I have to salute. But I'll wait and see if he can get the darn bill through first before I reconsider my overall opinion. If he does, then it really is a first--not only have APS and all the other groups re-created something worthy of a special issue of Arizona Highways, but it'll be the first time ever that a restored river can be considered a Wild & Scenic River. It's all pretty cool.

East Valley Tribune, July 3, 2005

If Arizona is the land of second chances, then it’s only fitting that Arizona -- the land itself -- get an unprecedented do-over.

The second chance is for Fossil Creek, which flows from a spring beneath the Mogollon Rim below Strawberry, then down Fossil Creek Canyon to the Verde River.

At least that’s what it did originally. In 1907, the Arizona Power Company, predecessor to APS, began damming Fossil Creek, diverting virtually all the water into an elevated 14-mile wooden flume that carried the water to turbines at two power plants, Childs and Irving, located downstream.

The Childs-Irving plants were unique feats of engineering. They generated the electricity for copper mines at Jerome, then power for north and central Arizona, and are part of Arizona’s mining and industrial heritage.

What was lost, however, was Fossil Creek itself. Not only was Fossil Creek one of the few Arizona rivers that runs continuously, even in summer, but its water contains high concentrations of calcium, which gave Fossil Creek its name. Minerals precipitating out of the water would coat branches and rocks, which early settlers thought looked like fossils. More significantly, the precipitating calcite also forms travertine, creating natural dams and pools for miles.

Fossil Creek’s water chemistry resembles that of world-famous Havasu Springs in the Grand Canyon. Records from before the diversion describe similar travertine formations, dams, and pools, which provided excellent habitat for rare native fishes. Precipitating calcite also made the water turn a deep, almost iridescent blue color. In its natural state, Fossil Creek was natural wonder, located only a 2-hour drive (and a rugged 2-hour hike) north of metro Phoenix.

And thanks to Arizona Public Service Company, Fossil Creek again will be a natural wonder. To its great credit, APS recognized in 1999 that the power generated by the Childs-Irving plants -- less than 1 percent of the APS generation portfolio -- wasn’t as valuable as a one-of-a-kind natural wonder. APS joined with the Yavapai Apache Indian Nation (members of which had provided much of the original labor to build the facilities) and several environmental groups to enter into a historic settlement and decommissioning agreement for the plants. Last month, as promised, APS returned full flows to Fossil Creek and, over the next five years, will remove the flume and structures not deemed historically worthy.

One of the environmental groups working with APS is American Rivers, and normally the journalistic convention is that I merely disclose that I represent them. But I want to do more than disclose; I want to brag.

I got involved in 1999, when American Rivers asked me to volunteer a couple of weeks, months max, to help document the tentative agreement between APS and the other environmental stakeholders. Six years later, I’m still at it. But with leadership from APS and cooperation from the environmental groups (including from some not especially noted for cooperation), Fossil Creek will again be something worthy of Arizona Highways -- and how cool is that?

Restoring and protecting Fossil Creek also demands that I praise Sen. John McCain, who has committed to introduce designation of Fossil Creek to the national Wild and Scenic River System. Wild and Scenic designation is the best way to protect the newly-restored river, which runs through areas already designated as wilderness and which has remained almost entirely undeveloped. It’s the best way to prepare for the increasing number of visitors sure to be attracted by the beauty of the travertine pools and the unique desert riparian habitat.

Designation will be a truly unique event. According to most experts, it would be the first time ever that a restored river could qualify as Wild and Scenic. But for the past century, APS protected Fossil Creek, so restoring full flows actually can bring back a river to its original wild and scenic state.

Thanks to APS, the environmental partners, the governmental agency stakeholders, and the Yavapai Apache Nation, Arizona is getting a second chance at having a remarkable desert riparian jewel gain. It’s now up to Sen. McCain’s colleagues to help give the Forest Service the tools its needs to protect the restored Fossil Creek.

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