A tired stream gains new steam

 

STRAWBERRY, Ariz. - Below Arizona's Mogollon Rim, Fossil Springs bubbles from the ground to water a dry land. From the springs, Fossil Creek used to flow almost 15 miles through scrubby mesquite and pinon trees before it emptied into the Verde River. But for almost a century, a dam built a quarter-mile from the springs has diverted more than 90 percent of the creek into a system of flumes, siphons and pen stocks. The water drives turbines at two small hydropower plants and never returns to Fossil Creek. It pours directly into the Verde.

Driving into the canyon from the mountain town of Strawberry in the center of the state, you can't miss the flume, which carries water from Fossil Creek Dam to the generating stations. The giant gutter hugs the far canyon wall for miles, and creates a curious optical illusion - at a distance, the water in the flume seems to be running uphill. In fact, for each 1,000 feet of conduit, it drops one foot.

The whole apparatus, known as Childs-Irving, was built by hand in 1909 to supply power to mines around Prescott and Jerome. In the early 1920s, this place powered many of Phoenix's streetlights, says Mike Stewart, who has managed the upper plant at Irving for nearly three years. "This whole project at the time was pretty much an engineering marvel," he says.

But for native fish, it's been a disaster. Today, environmental groups are pushing to decommission Childs-Irving. And federal agencies are jumping on board. Fossil Creek divides Coconino and Tonto national forests, and managers of both have asked Arizona Public Service (APS), the private electric company that owns the project, to restore Fossil Creek. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and even the Bureau of Reclamation want to see full flows restored, as do the Yavapai Apache and San Carlos Apache tribes, who consider Fossil Creek a sacred place.

Even the power company may be convinced. Since September 1998, a handful of environmental groups has been negotiating with APS to decommission the project. Company officials did not return phone calls, and Mindy Schlimgen-Wilson of American Rivers says she can't discuss particulars, but talks are going well.

"People haven't felt like they could influence the process until lately," she says. "And now people are going to make a change."

A fish nursery

Fossil Creek is both one-of-a-kind and emblematic. In the West, scores of dam licenses are up for renewal by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The largest slug is in California, where more than 100 projects will come up for relicensing in the next decade on major tributaries out of the Sierra Nevadas.

The power company's license to divert water from Fossil Creek expired in 1992. In 1994, FERC began a review, but the agency's environmental assessment is still under way. When it will be completed is anybody's guess.

Environmentalists and APS may arrive at an agreement before FERC finishes, but even that agreement has been too slow in coming, says the Center for Biological Diversity (formerly the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity), based in Tucson. The Center staged a protest outside of APS headquarters in Phoenix on Nov. 18 to express its disgust over time wasted while native species languish.

Of 30 native freshwater fishes in Arizona, one is extinct, 17 are federally listed as threatened or endangered, and two more are under consideration for listing. Habitat loss is one major factor in their decline: Less than 1 percent of Arizona's landscape consists of streams and riparian habitat, and more than 90 percent of the state's natural riparian areas are already lost, degraded or drastically altered.

The Verde, for instance, is pumped so fiercely, some say it's becoming a dead river. In the future, Fossil Creek may be the only secure tributary in the Verde system. For fish, that's a matter of life and death.

W. L. Minckley, a self-described "old fart" and professor of biology at Arizona State University, has worked on fishes in the Southwest since 1963. He says three fish species survive above the dam, but Fossil Creek offers a potential recovery area for the endangered razorback sucker and Gila topminnow. For the roundtail chub, it's been called "chub heaven."

It's not just Fossil Springs' perennial water that makes it good fish habitat, but what's in the water - calcium carbonate. The mineral, which is deposited on rocks and tree limbs, leaves behind formations early settlers likened to fossils. The creek's trademark tufa or travertine deposits also form dams, waterfalls and pools that serve as fish nurseries, Minckley says.

"The value of the system to aquatic biota is high because it's difficult for non-native species to invade," he adds. "You don't have to manage for non-natives ... the stream does it for you."

A sign of the times?

The Fossil Creek Dam isn't an economic powerhouse like dams in the Northwest, and it's politically insignificant beside a monster like Glen Canyon. Built by the hundreds, the project currently employs eight. Total output from the two plants is only 4.2 megawatts, 0.1 percent of APS' power.

But restoring Fossil Creek has great public-relations potential, Minckley says. "Large industries with this kind of capital are very foolish not to take advantage. If APS had any smarts at all - which they don't - they'd make this a feather in their cap."

Minckley and environmentalists are hoping APS will act of its own accord, because FERC, in its history, has only ordered one project removed, Edwards Dam in Maine. Andrew Falund, chair of the Hydropower Reform Coalition, a collection of more than 50 environmental and recreation groups across the country involved in relicensing, says not to expect hundreds more.

"There will be more dams decommissioned over the next 20 years," Falund says, but adds that "it will likely be the exception rather than the rule ... Where I think we'll see more dams removed over the next 20 years are those dams that have been abandoned, or whose costs simply outweigh their benefits. And I think that's the case with Fossil Creek."

Decommissioning at Fossil Creek means more than shutting down a power plant, Falund says. "We're talking about replumbing an entire watershed, which is really an amazing idea."

Karen Mockler is an HCN intern.

Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article is accompanied by a sidebar, "Figuring out FERC."

You can contact ...

* Ed Fox with Arizona Public Service at 602/250-2916;

* Mindy Schlimgen-Wilson with American Rivers at 602/234-3946, ext. 12;

* Lisa Force with Center for Biological Diversity, Phoenix office at 602/246-6498;

* Andrew Falund with Hydropower Reform Coalition at 877/347-7550, ext. 3022.