For the Birds

Are 18 birds in the nest worth 21 billion gallons of water down the drain?

Officials at Salt River Project, which uses dams at Roosevelt and Horseshoe to store water during wet seasons, saw what was coming. During the drought that's plagued Phoenix in the last decade, flycatchers had flocked to Roosevelt Lake's dried-out perimeter and nested in its trees. A total of 375 birds nested there last summer, making Roosevelt one of the largest flycatcher habitats in the nation.

Horseshoe attracted just 18 birds, says SRP's water engineering and transmission manager, Paul Cherrington. But that, too, was enough to cause concern.

There was no problem during the drought; the utility didn't have excess water, and the reservoirs were empty. But SRP knew the lakes would be needed for storage if rain fell. That would mean flooding the flycatchers' habitat, dramatically curtailing their breeding potential and, likely, incurring the Center for Biological Diversity's wrath.

Full reservoirs: good for city folk, bad for birdbrains.
Cameron Forsley
Full reservoirs: good for city folk, bad for birdbrains.
The flycatcher is heading right back to Horseshoe -- to trees that are under water.
The flycatcher is heading right back to Horseshoe -- to trees that are under water.

With that in mind, SRP completed a "Habitat Conservation Plan" for Roosevelt in 2003. Basically an agreement between U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the utility, the plan allows SRP to flood the lake every summer in exchange for a $25 million to $29 million commitment to help the flycatchers. Because of the plan, the company has spent the last two years buying up wilderness areas along Arizona rivers and preserving them specifically for the flycatcher. (Among other things, that means killing any cowbirds that take up residence, Cherrington says, but that's okay since the cowbirds aren't endangered -- yet.)

So this spring, when rain finally interrupted Phoenix's decadelong drought, the plan was set for Roosevelt and mitigation nearly complete. The lake was flooded, but the feds had given the plan their okay.

That was not true at Horseshoe.

For three years, SRP has been working with Fish and Wildlife on Horseshoe's conservation plan, Cherrington says. Along with the City of Phoenix, which has rights to much of Horseshoe's water, SRP has agreed to spend about $13 million to buy and maintain flycatcher habitat elsewhere.

But SRP can't finalize the plan, Cherrington says, because Fish and Wildlife officials say that the utility must also help the endangered fish in the Verde River. And the two parties, Cherrington says, are "at loggerheads on the fish issue."

The "fish issue," as Paul Cherrington explains it, seems nothing short of fishy. Apparently, the federal government and the Arizona Game and Fish Commission have been trying to reintroduce some endangered fish -- razorback suckers, Gila topminnow, and Colorado pikeminnow -- into the Verde River, upstream of the Horseshoe Dam.

But the project has been a miserable failure. According to Fish and Wildlife Service records, the two government agencies stocked more than 12 million young suckers in the Verde from 1981 to 1991, but found little evidence that many were surviving to adulthood.

After 1991, the agencies switched to farm-bred adults. Still no luck: More than 22,000 suckers were introduced, but Fish and Wildlife monitors indicate that as few as 1 percent have survived.

One of the biggest problems, Fish and Wildlife biologists now theorize, is the game fish in Horseshoe Lake. Catfish, sunfish and bass were stocked at Horseshoe for anglers. But instead of staying put in the lake, they've made their way upstream, terrorizing their endangered counterparts and eating their eggs.

Cherrington says the feds blame the problem, in part, on dam operations, arguing that raising and lowering the water is driving the sport fish upstream. SRP doesn't necessarily buy it, he says. But Fish and Wildlife now wants the utility build a barrier to stop the sport fish.

The cost of such a structure, Cherrington says, is unfathomable. "It would be like building a dam," he says. "It's just too expensive." SRP is willing to contribute to the government's fishery program, he says. But a fish guard is economically impossible.

And, as SRP is careful to point out, the company didn't put the sport fish in Horseshoe to begin with. For while the government is telling the utility to fix the problem, it's actually the government that's responsible for introducing the game fish in the first place.

For four decades, the Arizona Game and Fish Department stocked Horseshoe with sport fish, with the feds' full blessing. Game and Fish only stopped the program in the 1970s with the advent of the Endangered Species Act, says Chuck Paradzick, the agency's aquatic habitat program coordinator.

"This was all well-intentioned," Paradzick says. "These are the species that are back East. And people said these are the fish we want to catch here, too."

But while the sport fish stocking has mostly stopped, Paradzick admits that U.S. Fish and Wildlife -- the same agency that's telling SRP to fix the fish problem -- still works with the Game and Fish Department to stock one nonnative fish, trout, in parts of the Verde. Last year alone, the federal government kicked Arizona $5 million through its Sport Fish Restoration program.

Steve Spangle, a field supervisor with Fish and Wildlife, admits that there is an innate "tension" in the competing fish populations. His agency, he says, is intent on reaching agreement on all parts of SRP's Horseshoe plan, including the fish. He won't discuss details, although he disagrees with Cherrington's characterization of an impasse.

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