Tributary Bypass

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

Fossil Creek starts somewhere up the Mogollon Rim as a typical intermittent stream fed by snowmelt and other run-off. Like most Arizona streams, it's subject to the weather. But then at Fossil Springs, water gushes out of the ground from hundreds of tiny springs at a rate of 43 cubic feet--322 gallons--per second. It has a constant temperature of 75 degrees, winter and summer.

"It's an incredible amount of water in the desert uplands of Arizona," says Mary Orton of American Rivers. "There are rivers that don't have as much water as this little creek."

In fact, Fossil Creek pumps out more water than the East Verde River or the headwaters of the Verde proper, and at a more constant rate of flow.

Early settlers named the springs because minerals in the water coated everything with a white deposit that made objects look like fossils. The springs border juniper woodlands and a wilderness area, and the creek flows beneath lush sycamores and cottonwoods. But less than a quarter-mile downstream from the springs, the entire stream is diverted into 10.5 miles of flumes and pipes; it flows through one plant and into a holding lake, then drops through a tunnel into another plant, before it is dumped into the Verde River, three miles upstream from its natural bed.

The plants were built in 1909 and 1916 by entrepreneurs who called their venture The Arizona Power Company (TAPCO). The total cost was less than $500,000. The plants were so remote that it took five or six days on horseback to reach them from the nearest railroad.

TAPCO's first customers were mines in Jerome and Prescott and Crown King, and later irrigation companies and farms in the Verde valley. TAPCO cut deals to provide power to the Phoenix area in 1920, and APS took over operation in 1950, first leasing TAPCO, and then buying it in 1987.

"For a place that's had 100 years worth of industrial activity, it's a pretty nice ecosystem," says APS's Fox. Fortunately, but not intentionally, at least a tiny amount of water seeps through the dam to the natural creekbed. The dam cuts the stream flow from its natural 322 gallons per second to about 1.5 gallons per second. Then, as it runs downhill, it picks up steam due to run-off from the watershed. So the remnants of the creek are not a wasteland. It flows year-round through scoured bedrock in some places, clear pools and marshes in other places. It's not as lush a riparian area as above the dam, but it doesn't look unhealthy, either.

Looks are deceiving. It's not what it's supposed to be.
"The word 'unhealthy' is not a scientific term," says American Rivers' Orton. "If you look at this from a scientific standpoint, you need to consider what the place would look like with full flows."

APS began the ponderous federal relicensing process in 1992. It took five years for consultants hired by APS and FERC and the Forest Service to produce the draft environmental assessment, an initial look at the various alternatives for running the plants or restoring the full flow of the water. Like most science done for hire, it found what the applicant wanted--a "finding of no significant impact," which meant, essentially, that the dam and the plants could run as they are because they were not significantly affecting the environment. Nonetheless, neither APS nor the Forest Service nor the environmentalists cared for the particulars of the document, and they set about reworking it.

The draft assessment proposed recreational plans and habitat for non-native fish populations in Stehr Lake, which neither APS nor the environmental groups particularly wanted. APS also offered to put more water back into the stream, five cubic feet per second on the top reach, and 10 cubic feet per second below the Irving plant.

Once upon a time, Fossil Creek was likely home to Colorado squawfish, loach minnow, Gila topminnow, spikedace and razorback sucker, all endangered native Arizona fish species. Technically, there are no longer any native endangered fish in Fossil Creek, with the possible exception of razorback sucker, which were stocked in the stream above the dam some years ago and may still be there in small numbers.

And there are five other native species of fish in the stream, none of which are threatened. But the environmentalists focused on the restored stream's potential for habitat into which endangered fish could be reintroduced, notably razorback sucker. They looked to a 1997 FERC decision in which, for the first time, the agency refused to relicense a dam in Maine. FERC put in place a process allowing the manufacturing company that owned the dam to decommission and ultimately remove it.

"Before, they would only weigh the economics of the situation," says Mary Orton of American Rivers. "Today they are required to also weigh the environmental impacts."

Nonetheless, there were competing economic interests in keeping or removing the dam in Maine: the manufacturer versus an improved environment for fish--and consequently an improved economic environment for the salmon-fishing industry.

With Fossil Creek, the competing interests are less tangible: a clean, albeit tiny energy source by which one of Arizona's richest corporations makes a small profit versus something so abstract as forest health.

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