Tributary Bypass

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

And what exactly should a restored stream look like anyway? After 100 years of water over the dam, it's difficult to say, or to say how quickly it could recover some semblance of its original contour.

There is evidence to suggest that it could recover quickly. According to a Forest Service soils scientist, Fossil Springs pours out 12 metric tons of calcium carbonate per day, the mineral for which settlers named the springs. As the water drops over waterfalls and swirls through channels, those minerals attach to everything--twigs, rocks, leaves--cementing it all together like cheap concrete. The buildup is called travertine, and anyone who has hiked up Havasu Creek from the Colorado River or down to Havasu falls from the Havasupai reservation, has seen the picturesque pools and waterfalls--native fish habitat--that travertine forms.

In 1996, APS temporarily returned a full flow of water to the lower reach of Fossil Creek in order to perform routine maintenance. Researchers from Northern Arizona University and the Forest Service noted that within a single month, eight to 12 inches of travertine was deposited in some places on the flowing creek.

"It was very surprising," says Steve Overby of the Forest Service, and he suspected it would only take a few years for natural dams to begin to form in the stream. The dams would make excellent fish habitat and help keep non-native predator fish from swimming upstream to eat the native fish.

The environmentalists seized on this as proof that even if there were no remaining endangered fish, a restored Fossil Creek might be an ideal place to try to rebuild fish populations.

"We've taken the position that the habitat could support certain stages of razorback sucker," says Forest Service fisheries biologist Jerry Stefferud. They might not be able to spawn in Fossil Creek, but stocked fingerlings could grow large enough to swim out into the Verde and fend for themselves.

Stefferud's opinion is not unanimously embraced, even within the Forest Service. District Ranger Ken Anderson says, "I'm not getting clear signals from the scientists that we will automatically be able to restore native fisheries by going to full flows."

APS and Game and Fish personnel rightly questioned whether non-native predator fish species could work their way up the creek from the Verde and destroy what native fish, threatened or nonthreatened, now exist in the untouched stream reaches above the dam.

Environmentalist Robin Silver raises his voice in frustration. "There is no habitat anywhere anymore where they're secure," he says. "So the best you can do is at least have water in a stream, and then have it so most of the fish's life cycle can be lived in that stream.

"In Fossil Creek, what's different is not only can the fish survive, but then it can float out into the Verde. Then at least you have a source population."

Impatient with the FERC's slow movement and with the pace of negotiations between APS and the various environmental groups, Silver filed a notice of intent to sue FERC and the Forest Service under the Endangered Species Act, the National Forest Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act for failing to maintain populations of native fish and other threatened species.

"Is it controversial?" Silver asks. "You better believe it. Is it a significant impact on the environment? It certainly is when you're going to foreclose our ability to sustain and manage 14 miles of riparian area."

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is close-mouthed about the Fossil Creek license. Spokespeople for the commission don't know how long the final relicensing process might take. APS and environmentalists alike expect the license to be renewed. APS says it will still look for ways to decommission the two plants.

"If we reach an agreement where APS would close it down at some point, then we need to be able to walk away with no liability," says Ed Fox.

The environmentalists have not insisted that everything be removed.
"One thing we don't know is if you blow up the dam, what happens to the hydrology up there?" asks Robin Silver. The plants have historical value; a section of flume might be left as a reminder of earlier industries, much like the preserved canal locks along historic Pennsylvania waterways that have been turned into museums. The dam might be kept in place to preserve the fishery above it. "Not on our ticket," says Ed Fox, because APS does not want legal or financial responsibility for those decisions.

Without the APS crew, the roads would become derelict and even more dangerous than they already are. The plants would deteriorate. The flumes would be attractive nuisances. The dam would eventually give way. Would the Forest Service be able and willing to pick up the slack? Would the environmentalists?

APS is now commissioning a study to refine its $6 million to $12 million estimate for the cost of removing the facilities, money it doesn't want to pay. And it needs to replace the power it will lose.

"The truth is that when that closes down, it's four more megawatts that we're going to have to generate from coal or from Palo Verde, which most environmentalists don't like either," Fox says. "There are trade-offs, because that power's going to have to come from someplace."

Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address:

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