Drought: Five Things You Need To Know About This Rainy Winter

By Warren Tenney

Many people are wondering what this rainy, snowy winter means for Arizona after more than two decades of drought. Here are five things we know right now.

1. It’s raining and snowing in the right places. So far, it has been raining and snowing in locations that have the potential to increase water in two major reservoirs, Roosevelt Lake and Lake Mead. These reservoirs are key to drinking water supplies for the majority of Arizona’s population.

  • Lake Mead relies on runoff from snow pack in the Upper Colorado River Basin, primarily from two main tributaries: the Green River in southwestern Wyoming and the Upper Colorado River in western Colorado. December snowpack in the Colorado River Basin has ranged from 50 percent to three times above normal.  The result of this above normal precipitation will likely boost the reservoir levels of Lake Mead.
  • Roosevelt Lake relies on rain and snow in the watershed that feeds the Salt River. This watershed reaches into the high country northeast of Phoenix. So far, the watershed has received about 45 percent more precipitation than normal. As of January 25th, 211,000 acre-feet of water had flowed into Roosevelt Lake. (One acre-foot of water is enough to serve three average Arizona households for a year.)

2. This is a good start. Weather in February and March must remain cold and wet to hold and increase the gains and potential gains in both reservoirs. Water resource managers are pleased with rain but prefer snow accompanied by extended weeks of cold temperatures. Low temperatures keep the snow on the ground longer, which stops the water in the ground from evaporating and helps to reduce the threat of summer wildfires. The slow flow from melting snow also delivers cleaner water and is easier to manage in a water delivery system. So while it has already been a good winter, we will have to wait until April to know if it has been a great season.

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This is a map of the  watershed where the springs, creeks and rivers originate that feed into Roosevelt Lake, a key drinking water reservoir for the Phoenix Metro area.

3. The drought is not over. Research shows that drought cycles and wet cycles in Arizona run 20 to 30 years. A drought cycle has fewer wet years than dry and a wet cycle has a greater number of above average rainy years. The current record-breaking drought cycle began around 1996. The last six years have been the driest on record in the Salt and Verde rivers’ watersheds. If the weather follows historical trends, the current drought could be coming to a close within the next several years, but there’s no certainty and it does not factor in climate change. It would take a few years of greater than average snow and rain to begin to heal the wounds left by the current drought. This includes helping to replenish local aquifers used to back up water available in dams and reservoirs. Plus, two or three years of well above-average precipitation on the watersheds that feed the Salt and Verde rivers would help to re-establish depleted wildlife, such as quail and deer. That much precipitation would help to restore overgrazed grasslands and begin to create a healthier forest, with trees not as susceptible to diseases and bark beetle infestation.

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4. AMWUA cities are built for drought. Sunshine is the norm in Central Arizona and rain is an event. We have never denied that we live in an arid part of the country and we plan for drought cycles. AMWUA cities save water underground for future use, keep leaks within their water distribution systems to some of the lowest rates in the country, and re-use 99 percent of their wastewater. Salt River Project (SRP) operates the system of reservoirs and canals that store water from the Salt and Verde rivers. After a rare rainy year in 2010, SRP has faced six dry years on the rivers’ watersheds. Despite record low precipitation, Roosevelt Lake has remained half full and SRP has been able to fill water orders for farmers, industries and cities. SRP was forced to limit water orders by 33 percent in 2002, the driest year in the Southwest in 1,200 years. That year, the SRP system was only 25 percent full and Roosevelt Lake alone was down to 10 percent full. It was the first reduction since the 1950s.

Central Arizona Project (CAP) operates the canal that brings Colorado River water released from Lake Mead to Arizona. CAP has not yet had to reduce water supplies due to a Colorado River shortage. The state’s cities, farmers and industries currently are working together to maintain and increase the level of water stored in Lake Mead and prevent a water shortage declaration next year. The recent increase in winter precipitation and snowpack in the Colorado River Basin decreases the chances that a shortage would be declared in 2018. So, while we regularly face metrological droughts, our water supply droughts are rare.

5. You can make the rain count. Homeowners, apartment managers and businesses make a contribution to our reservoirs when they turn off their irrigation systems and auto-fills on their pools each time it rains. More homeowners and communities also are harvesting the rain by contouring their landscapes to hold storm runoff. Swales built around trees and plants help rainwater stay in place longer so the water soaks deep into the landscape and stays available to plants and trees longer. All of this reduces the need to irrigate and the demand on city water supplies, which in turn saves more drinking water for drinking.

For 48 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 http://www.amwua.org. 

 

Phoenix Partners With Forest Fund To Protect Valley Water

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.

Prescribed burn in Coconino National Forest

Prescribed burn in Coconino National Forest

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.

Wildfires Raise Cost Of Treating Valley Drinking Water

By Kathleen Ferris

Wildfires that tear through Arizona’s north country destroy our playgrounds, ravage ecosystems, kill and displace wildlife, and pollute the Valley’s water supply. If the wildfires are not contained, the Salt River Project fears more of these hotter and faster-moving fires also could threaten the life of its reservoirs. To slow and cool the fires, SRP is leading an effort to thin the state’s ponderosa pine forests to reduce the threat. That means cutting down trees, which is expensive and controversial.

The Problem

Before 1850, ponderosa pine forests in the state’s unsettled north country averaged 40 large, rugged trees to an acre. During monsoon season, lightening caused fires smoldered through the forests’ low underbrush of grasses, seedlings and pine needles. The mature, tough-barked ponderosa pines were nearly untouched.

Animals brought by settlers fed on the forest grasses and left the soil bare. That encouraged the growth of seedlings. Slowly, the forest became thick with smaller, weaker trees.

After decades of suppressing fires, the forests changed.

1901 photo taken near Kendrick Mountain shows the historical spacing of trees in northern Arizona forests. Photo: USDA, Fort Valley Experimental Forest Archives

1901 photo taken near Kendrick Mountain shows the historical spacing of trees in northern Arizona forests. Photo: USDA, Fort Valley Experimental Forest Archives

Today’s ponderosa pine forests can have up to 1,000 trees and more per acre. The underbrush includes young trees in a thick layer of pine needles. Fire fighters call this underbrush “ladder fuel” because it carries fire up to the crowns of the largest pines in the forest where the flames grow hotter, move faster and are more destructive. A typical wildfire can progress at three miles a day. During the 2011 Wallow Fire firefighters reported flames moving up to 15 miles a day as winds whipped the flames.

Ponderosa pines near Fort Valley is indicative of the dense conditions that exacerbate fire risks.  Photo: Ecological Restoration Institute, NAU

Ponderosa pines near Fort Valley is indicative of the dense conditions that exacerbate fire risks. Photo: Ecological Restoration Institute, NAU

These hot crown fires leave behind devastated landscapes covered in a thick layer of sterile soil that cannot absorb water. Storm runoff brings tons of soil into the rivers, lakes and streams that feed SRP’s reservoirs. This erosion can continue for up to five years after a fire.

SRP provides half of the Valley’s drinking water. The sediment makes the water delivered by SRP difficult and expensive for cities to treat and turn into drinking water. After large fires, such as the Wallow and Rodeo-Chediski in 2002, that soil also contained ash and carbon making it even more of a problem to treat.

The sediment from these large and unnatural wildfires begins to grow in the reservoirs. The more sediment, the less water the reservoirs can hold. SRP fears that if these newer and hotter wildfires are not controlled, sediment could fill the reservoirs until they are useless. This has already happened to smaller reservoirs in Colorado, similar to Arizona’s C.C. Cragin Reservoir near Strawberry.

The Solution

Research shows that returning the state’s ponderosa pine forests to an average of 100 to 150 trees per acre would significantly reduce the likelihood of crown fires. That would allow fewer trees to grow larger and tough enough to survive wildfires. Wildfires would burn lower and cooler and move slowly through the underbrush without small trees to feed on.

Conservation groups have mixed reactions to forest thinning, but the biggest hurdle is expense. Thinning all of Arizona’s ponderosa pine forests would cost nearly $2 billion. Private industries just aren’t that enthusiastic about cutting small trees because the wood products, such as chips and mulch and home heating pellets, are not as lucrative as planks from larger trees.

Where we are now.

SRP in partnership with the National Forest Foundation has started the Northern Arizona Forest Fund. The fund encourages businesses, individuals and organizations to donate time and money to specific projects that protect the Valley’s watersheds. For example, this year the fund will pay to thin about 1,000 acres around Upper Beaver Creek, 30 miles south of Flagstaff. Chainsaw crews will clear 150 acres of the thickest forest, taking out trees 9 inches or less in diameter. Then the project will use prescribed fire to clear underbrush from the 1,000 acres.

Now consider this: Arizona has over 3 million acres of ponderosa pine forests.

Find out more about SRP’s forest restoration efforts and the statewide Healthy Forests, Vibrant Economy conference Oct. 16 and 17.

For 45 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 www.amwua.org.