By Kathleen Ferris
Every time a truck, an ATV, or a motorbike travels along a dirt road in Arizona’s high country it churns up the ground, creates ruts and gullies, and degrades the edges of the road. When there is a storm, these dirt roads become conduits for runoff that carry the churned earth into streams and rivers.
Eventually, that sediment reaches familiar lakes, such as Roosevelt, Canyon, and Bartlett. These recreational lakes also serve as reservoirs that hold the water Phoenix and other Valley cities receive, treat, and send to homes and businesses. The more sediment in the water the more difficult and expensive it is for cities to create drinking water for all of us.
Wildfires also exacerbate the problem by leaving behind thick layers of sterile soil that can’t absorb water. Storm runoff brings tons of that soil into streams, rivers and, eventually, into reservoirs. After large fires, such as the Wallow in 2011 and Rodeo-Chediski in 2002, the sediment also contains ash and carbon making it even more difficult to treat.
This is why last month the Phoenix City Council unanimously approved a three-year, $600,000 grant to the Northern Arizona Forest Fund. The fund, established in 2014, is a partnership of the U.S. Forest Service, National Forest Foundation, and Salt River Project.
The fund is dedicated to maintaining healthy forests and trails that surround the Salt and Verde rivers, the source of half of the Valley’s drinking water. So far, contributors to the Northern Arizona Forest Fund include businesses, utilities, and philanthropic organizations. The City of Phoenix is the first municipality to contribute to the fund.
The Northern Arizona Forest Fund works with its partners, local non-profits, and private contractors to identify and finance specific projects that help to keep creeks, streams, rivers and lakes clean. This year, the Northern Arizona Forest Fund is supporting two projects in the Coconino National Forest.
- The Oak Creek Erosion Control Project is improving 20 miles of dirt roads around this popular recreational area. The $200,000 project is repairing gullies and ruts and restoring areas where vehicles have pulled off the designated road to avoid obstacles. In a few places, the trail will be rerouted. Then the trails will be stabilized with sealants, gravel and other structures to minimize erosion.
- The Upper Beaver Creek Forest Health Project is located about 30 miles south of Flagstaff. This $300,000 project thins the forest by removing small trees and underbrush. Firefighters call this underbrush “ladder fuel” because it carries fire up to the crowns of the largest pines where the flames grow hotter, move faster and are more destructive. Most of this 48,000-acre area will be thinned manually. A prescribed burn will clear a small portion of about 1,000 acres.
With the help of Phoenix’s contribution, the Northern Arizona Forest Fund will be able to fund at least five more thinning and erosion control projects beginning in 2016. These projects are within four National Forests near important water sources.
- Coconino: Thin about 25 acres of forest near Stoneman Lake, 30 miles south of Flagstaff. The area surrounds a habitat area for the endangered Mexican Spotted Owl. Improve 11 miles of Schnebly Hill Road to decrease sediment flow into nearby Oak Creek.
- Kaibab: Thin 200 acres of piñon-juniper forest 10 miles south of Williams.
- Prescott: Fill gullies and remove trees and invasive weeds in 100-acres of natural meadow 10 miles northwest of Cottonwood.
- Apache-Sitgreaves: In partnership with the White Mountain Apache Tribe, reconstruct four and a half miles of fence 20 miles south of Greer. The fence was destroyed in the Wallow Fire. It prevents feral and domesticated horses from damaging a 2,000-acre riparian wildlife habitat area.
Phoenix has the foresight to understand that distant forests are its vital link to a clean and steady water supply. More Valley cities will likely join in this effort.
For 46 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit amwua.org.