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.

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.

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: mkiefer@newtimes.com

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