For the Birds

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

But Spangle admits that this spring's rains could be deadly for the flycatcher. Horseshoe Lake is now inundated. The willows that the flycatchers used for nesting last year are all but submerged.

The flycatchers winter in Costa Rica, but they began arriving back in Arizona May 1. And in typical flycatcher fashion, they didn't seek out willows that weren't under water. In these early weeks, at least, they've also failed to commute to the $20 million of habitat that the feds purchased just for them after the Roosevelt Lake lawsuit, or the $25 million in habitat that SRP has been adding to the mix.

Instead, they went right back to their old haunts and perched at the top of the nearly submerged trees.

Nesting there will likely prove impossible. Since the flycatcher's life span is usually only about five years, even one year without successful breeding could put a major dent in their number.

The Center for Biological Diversity saw one solution: The Salt River Project should lower the dam and send water streaming down the Verde River. That would give the flycatchers their old home back.

It would also waste a lot of water.

"It would be a total loss for us," says SRP's Cherrington. To get the water low enough to make flycatcher nesting possible, he says, SRP would have to dump about half the lake: 67,000 acre-feet of water, which is 21 billion gallons, or roughly enough to sate the needs of 67,000 families of four for an entire year.

The Center says it wouldn't have to be a waste. If SRP used its reserves at Horseshoe first, instead of water from Roosevelt, Horseshoe's water level would drop. But even that wouldn't be enough, Cherrington says. SRP would still have to dump 22,000 acre-feet -- about a third of the water in question. And, because of complicated water-rights issues, using Roosevelt first would cost SRP millions of dollars.

Something had to give. And it wouldn't be SRP.

Cherrington says he made that clear. "I asked Fish and Wildlife, 'How can you explain that we're spilling water that should be stored?' That would not be a pretty picture."

He knew, he says, that Fish and Wildlife would fold. "Here we're in our worst drought, and yet we're being forced to spill water for these birds? They don't like that kind of political heat."

Sure enough, Fish and Wildlife offered a compromise. In February, it suggested SRP apply for a special "recovery permit" that would allow the water to stay in the lake this summer to study its effect on the bird.

It issued the permit in late April, just in time for the flycatcher's arrival.

You don't have to be an environmental activist to see a bit of a reach. After all, if research was really needed on that subject, as Fish and Wildlife claims, why not do it at Roosevelt Lake, which is also flooded for the first time this year? Even SRP's Cherrington tells the story as a stare-down, and one where the feds blinked.

Spangle, of Fish and Wildlife, insists the deal was aboveboard. "They're going to be contributing to the survival of the species by helping us to learn more about how it'll react and behave under certain circumstances," he says. SRP is even hiring environmental consultants, to the tune of about $100,000, to monitor the situation.

The Center for Biological Diversity is threatening to sue.

In a letter to Fish and Wildlife, dated April 7, Harrington notes that the water at Horseshoe is only about 5 percent of SRP's total reservoir capacity. Meanwhile, she says, "the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher is in jeopardy of extinction." Her letter vows to sue if the water isn't released.

"The real story is, they're not done with their negotiations," she says. "They needed a way to keep the water without violating the Endangered Species Act."

As logical as her argument is, it's still a tough sell. It's easy to imagine the outrage: An environmental group is suing to force SRP to dump -- or give away -- enough water to supply 67,000 families? Just to save 18 stupid birds?

Harrington is undaunted. "The PR on this is not my concern," she says. "My concern is the continued existence of the willow flycatcher. . . . The cumulative effect of what's happening at Roosevelt this year, and what's being allowed to happen at Horseshoe, could just have a devastating impact on the bird. And I don't think anyone is taking it seriously."

Still, the Center makes no mention of the situation on its Web site and has issued no press release. Harrington says they're talking to lawyers, but she doesn't sound ready to file.

Indeed, despite the threat of litigation, Cherrington speaks freely. He understands the strength of SRP's case in the court of public opinion. After all, the utility has already committed to $25 million for mitigation for Roosevelt and another $13 million for Horseshoe -- all to save a bird that's congenitally incapable of saving itself.

And that doesn't even get into the fish issue.

"Wherever I make a presentation about this, without exception," Cherrington says, "people talk about how crazy it seems."

And so the water sits in Horseshoe Lake, and so flycatchers continue to arrive from Costa Rica. They're looking for their old nesting spots; what they're finding instead is enough water to sate Scottsdale for a year.

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