Born Again

Twenty years ago last April, I strapped on a backpack, called my dog, walked out the door of my parents' northern Virginia home and set my course west.

Bear and I hiked a couple of miles down to Interstate 66 and hitched the first of dozens of rides that would launch us on a grand adventure that's still unfolding.

I longed for the West.

Through snowstorms, hail, blue skies and countless hours walking along the shoulders of highways, we moved on. There was no rush. There was no specific place, or special someone, waiting for us.

We were adrift in America.

But we weren't entirely aimless. Arizona's landscape had pierced my soul when I was a student at Arizona State University in the 1970s. The memory of the area's desert beauty had stayed with me like a cholla cactus thorn jammed into the arch of a hiker's foot.

I wasn't too surprised to soon find myself back in the Verde Valley, a mere 100 miles north of Phoenix, where I camped one night next to the lovely Verde River, letting it rock me to sleep.

We caught a ride the next day down the General Crook Trail, jumping off at the Fossil Creek Road turnoff. We hiked 22 miles down the treacherous, serpentine dirt road littered with the rusted relics of old cars that had plunged into steep ravines on their way to the remote Verde Hot Springs.

We reached the ruins of the old hot springs resort along the Verde River about sunset. My aching body made a beeline for the hot water captured in two concrete tubs perched above the banks of the Verde River.

I spent the night in the hot springs, occasionally jumping into the cold Verde. A light rain began to fall, giving way to snow near dawn. The sun burned off the morning mist, revealing a desert landscape draped in a dusting of white.

I didn't think there could possibly be any place more wonderful nearby.

I was wrong. But two decades would pass until another of Arizona's secrets was revealed to me.

About half a mile downstream from the hot springs is the small hamlet of Childs, made up of six or so houses where workers operating the oldest hydroelectric power plant in Arizona live.

Painstakingly built by 450 Mexican and Indian laborers in 1908-09, the Childs power plant's three General Electric generators supplied electricity to the mining boom town of Jerome and other mining camps scattered across the Bradshaw Mountains south of Prescott. Nearly 100 years later, the generators are still churning out four megawatts of power that goes into the Arizona Public Service Company electricity grid -- but not for much longer.

The Childs hydroelectric power plant was an early 20th-century engineering marvel and construction triumph. The closest railhead was 40 miles away in Mayer. It was a two-day horseback ride to Childs. The workers first built the dirt road I had hiked and then hauled in tons of steel and cement to build the powerhouse.

A second hydroelectric generating station was added a few miles upstream from Childs in 1914 and dubbed Irving. After the copper and gold mines played out, the Childs-Irving power plant provided electricity for Phoenix and Prescott, which were battling in the 1920s to see which city would become the dominant metropolis of Arizona.

Remarkable as the Childs-Irving story is, its construction caused tremendous ecological damage to one of Arizona's most important natural treasures, Fossil Creek. The power plant was built in the remote area because it could rely on a steady supply of water blasting out of Fossil Springs at the rate of 300 gallons per second -- which is an astounding amount of spring water in central Arizona.

For eons, Fossil Springs fed the 15 miles of Fossil Creek that twisted down to the Verde River with calcium-rich water. The mineral-laden water created a travertine stream system much like the famous Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon. The calcium deposits from Fossil Creek formed small travertine dams, pools and waterfalls providing lush habitat for native wildlife.

The construction of the Childs power plant destroyed nearly all of this wonderful and unique habitat. A dam was built about a mile downstream of Fossil Springs, cutting off nearly all of the water from entering Fossil Creek. For nearly a century, Fossil Springs' flow has been diverted into a concrete-and-steel flume built precariously into the sides of steep canyon walls. The flume carries Fossil Springs' water several miles, first to the Irving plant, and then down to Childs, before it is released into the Verde River.

The 14 miles of Fossil Creek below the dam dried up, and with it, some of the best habitat for rare native fish and wildlife in Arizona. Fossil Creek was one of the first of many Arizona streams, creeks and rivers to be destroyed. It wasn't to be the last.

Nearly 90 percent of Arizona's native riparian stream systems have been lost to development, dams and agriculture. The destruction of Arizona's water courses coincides with a plummet in the number and variety of native plants and animals. Of Arizona's 36 native fish species, more than half are endangered, and many are no longer even present in historical Arizona habitats.

That's about to change.

Resulting from a rare moment when business leaders and environmentalists agreed on something, Fossil Creek is about to be reborn.

Arizona Public Service has agreed to decommission the Childs-Irving complex and is spending $13 million to restore the landscape to its natural setting. The Irving power plant will be razed and all the support buildings removed. The eight miles of flume will be torn down over the next five years.

When restoration is completed in 2009, only the Childs power plant building will remain as a historical landmark.

Sometime this winter, the diversion gate to the flume will be shut forever and the 300 gallons per second of water surging from Fossil Springs will resume a natural course down Fossil Creek.

To say that this moment is eagerly anticipated is a gross injustice to the unbridled excitement, joy and worldwide attention being focused on the restoration of the creek.

"The science gods smiled on me," says Northern Arizona University biologist Jane Marks, who is spearheading an ecological survey of Fossil Creek that will continue for several years.

Marks is confident that once full flows return to the creek, the travertine formations will eventually extend for more than 10 kilometers and provide a fertile habitat for a variety of native fish.

Like any birth, it hasn't been easy.

A coalition of environmental groups led by Robin Silver of the Center for Biological Diversity engaged in a series of sometimes contentious meetings with leaders of APS, including its environmental division boss and former Arizona Department of Environmental Quality director, Ed Fox.

It took a few years and threats of lawsuits before APS finally agreed to forgo the tiny amount of power generated at Childs-Irving (four megawatts compared with 3,810 megawatts generated at Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station) and decommission the plant.

APS' decision is a victory for the environmental community and the utility, which finally seized the moment and did the right thing.

"We really can return this watershed to its condition of 100 years ago," Fox says. "That opportunity just doesn't exist elsewhere."

Silver says Bill Post, APS' chairman and chief executive officer, overcame resistance from other APS executives and fought to close the power plant and restore Fossil Creek.

"Bill Post is a hero," says Silver.

The APS decision opens a unique opportunity for scientists to study the ecology of streamside restoration. The information learned at Fossil Creek could provide important insight on future creek and river restoration projects that will become more common as more dams (Glen Canyon on the Colorado River is one possibility) are removed across the United States.

In preparation for the return of full flows, state and federal wildlife agencies are removing all non-native fish from Fossil Creek. During the past few weeks, more than 1,200 native fish were first snagged and placed into holding tanks. The creek was then treated with a chemical that killed the non-native fish.

On a recent Friday, I stood on the banks of the creek for the first time in two decades and watched a PBS documentary film crew videotape a Bureau of Reclamation helicopter lowering a 55-gallon steel drum filled with about 200 native fish attached to the end of a 100-foot line.

Wildlife agency workers scooped the fish out of the drum, dumped them into a five-gallon bucket and took it over to the edge of the creek. They climbed down a steep embankment just above the roaring stream temporarily swelled from the runoff of late October's storms and held the bucket.

Excitedly, they counted, "One, two, three!" before turning the bucket upside down and releasing a bit of Arizona's glorious wildlife heritage back into a creek that will soon return to its full majesty.

Into Fossil Creek went Sonoran suckers, desert suckers, speckled dace, headwater chub and roundtail chub, the latter of which is expected to become a trophy fish for anglers.

I thought back to 20 years ago, to that morning in the Verde Hot Springs where daybreak revealed prickly pears draped in snow, and how that moment sealed my commitment to and love for Arizona.

And I thought how lucky I was to be able to now see something even more stunning than the desert dusted in snow.

I was witnessing what once was deemed impossible -- the rebirth of a natural Arizona stream.

I'm glad that long-departed Bear and I made that trek west.

E-mail [email protected], or call 602-229-8445.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty