Born Again

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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.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty