Tributary Bypass

Ninety years ago, an electric company harnessed all 14 miles of Fossil Creek. Now, environmentalists want the water set free.

Fossil Creek, a major tributary of the Verde River, doesn't flow over travertine and river rock, bedrock gorges or deep canyons. It runs through pipes and tunnels, through two power plants and a steel half-pipe that resembles the log flume ride at Disneyland. In fact, woodland yahoos have been known to lift the sheet-metal covers off the flume below the upper hydro plant to ride the creek like a water slide into manmade Stehr Lake.

The flume and the power plants were built more than 90 years ago to power the mining industry in Jerome and Prescott. During the 1920s, especially in dry years when water in Roosevelt Lake was too low to make electricity, Fossil Creek kept the lights lit in Phoenix as well. In its time, the hydroelectric power system was an engineering marvel.

Now it's an anachronism.
The Childs and Irving plants on Fossil Creek produce less than one-fourth of 1 percent of the power that Arizona Public Service Company produces. And with a profit of about $500,000 a year, the plants represent about .002 percent of APS's annual earnings.

But money is money.
"It has been a good investment for us over the years," says APS manager Larry Johnson, "and it continues to be."

The plants are paid for, run on a skeleton crew, and the rent is cheap--$3,000 a year--thanks to the U.S. Forest Service. The plants together generate four to 4.5 megawatts of electricity at any one time, in contrast with a coal- or oil-fueled plant, which cranks out 200 to 300 megawatts.

Since December 1992, APS has been trying to relicense the plants through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC); special-use permits from the Forest Service remain in effect while the renewal is pending.

But the environmental community is lobbying against relicensing Childs-Irving, pushing instead to return the water to its streambed with the hopes of providing habitat for threatened native fish. Riparian areas are rare in Arizona, and perennial streams with flows like Fossil Creek's just don't exist.

It's an environmental dilemma. APS sells more power than it generates, so what little electricity is produced at the expense of Fossil Creek will have to be generated some other way--through coal- or nuclear-powered plants, which are much more harmful to the environment than hydropower.

Still, American Rivers, the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy and other environmental groups are asking FERC to deny the license and are negotiating with APS to return the water to the creek, whether or not the license is renewed.

The more aggressive Southwest Center for Biological Diversity has already filed letters notifying FERC and the Forest Service of its intent to sue to force the issue.

APS says it is willing to deal.
"If we can find a way to transition out of the facility in a way that makes sense and get them what they want, which is to get the full flow back in the stream, we're prepared to have that discussion," says APS's Ed Fox, the former director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

But it has to make "business sense," Fox continues. In other words, removing the facility will cost $6 million to $12 million, according to APS estimates, and APS wants to know who will pay for it--meaning, they'd rather not.

The Forest Service has some questions of its own. APS may get to use the land and the water for next to nothing, but in return, it maintains 1,800 miles of forest roads into the plants that hikers and campers and fishermen have come to depend on. APS not only grades and repairs the roads, but patrols them as well, discouraging vandals and pulling motorists out of ditches.

APS also maintains the watershed of the creekbed. And if the dam at the top of the project and the plants (which are on the National Register of Historic Places) are kept on site, as some history buffs would like, then someone would have to maintain them as well. The Forest Service isn't sure it has that money in its budget. Furthermore, if the water were put back in the creek, then even more water-starved hikers and splashers would flow into the canyon to escape summer in the city.

"There's no question there's a lot of things to gain by full flows," says Ken Anderson, district ranger for that part of the Coconino National Forest that lies on Fossil Creek. But given the extra duties his agency would have to assume, the loss of power, the environmental disturbance that plant removal would cause, he explains, it's not a decision to be made lightly.

"It's amazing there aren't bullet holes in the flume," says Robin Silver of the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity.

Indeed. Every road sign on the way into the creek looks like a colander, and a couple dozen random shots through the steel flume would make it look like a giant backwoods watering can. Why the local gun nuts abstain is anyone's guess.

There's a rustic charm to the flume, which snakes down the valley on a railroadlike trestle. The plants have a back-East old-millstream look to them. They sit on the remote boundary between the Tonto and Coconino National Forests, midway between Strawberry and Camp Verde, down washboard mountain roads that hang off the drop edge of yonder. The vistas are lovely, but miss a curve and you need to radio in to the control tower for a landing pattern. Getting to the dam and the springs that feed the creek requires either a hike four miles up a closed access road from the Irving Plant, or a two-hour hike down the canyon from a trailhead outside Strawberry.

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