It was risky, Paul Summerfelt concedes, to ask voters for an unprecedented $10 million bond issue for forest and watershed restoration.
But the greater risk was to do nothing – to wait for the inevitable wildfire that damaged, or destroyed, the city of Flagstaff’s drinking water supply.
So Summerfelt, the city’s wildland fire program manager, took a deep breath and joined his colleagues in local government and the firefighting community and made the request.
An unimaginable 74 percent of the northern Arizona city’s voters said yes.
“We never couched the election in terms of cost, but rather in terms of investment,” Summerfelt said.
“Wildfires are spectacular; they’re pretty scary,” he said. “But they’re also short-lived. The firefighters leave and life goes back to normal.
“When we started to talk about the risk in terms of water, that resonated with people because they use water every day. Recognizing that green infrastructure of the forest as the most at-risk component of any municipal water system is the link that absolutely needs to be made.”
Increasingly, communities throughout the American West are making the connection between wildfires and the security of their drinking water. Burn up the forest that sits atop a city’s watershed and there will be significant and long-lasting damage to the flow of water to reservoirs, neighborhoods and, ultimately, kitchen faucets.
But the public education and buy-in can take years. Some cities are so distant from their water source that few residents can even identify it. There can be turf wars between political leaders, water utilities and land managers. Implementation can slow to a crawl – or stop – because of bureaucratic or legal processes. Almost always, there is denial: “It won’t happen here.”
Still, every Western community that has formed a partnership and implemented a forest and watershed protection plan has the same message: Do it. Do it now.
“Communities or cities that choose not to get engaged in this issue have their head in the sand,” Summerfelt said. “Communities may be fairly immune to, or even safe from, the flames. But they are not immune to the post-fire damage that occurs. They’re going to pay the price if they don’t get engaged.”
Flagstaff’s awakening began 20 years ago, with the 1996 wildfire season. That summer brought several 100-acre-plus fires into the city’s corporate limits, the largest fires to that point on the Coconino National Forest.
Summerfelt was hired the following year, when the city initiated its wildland fire management program. Right then, he started talking about the need for forest restoration – about the impacts of a century of fire suppression on the national forests that surround not only Flagstaff but also other communities throughout the West.
“Working with the Forest Service, we had a lot of efforts under way,” he said. “There was a lot of work occurring in the forest, and we started to see the benefits. We had some notable fire events that were relatively easily controlled because they ran into areas we had treated – serious fires where we were evacuating upwards of 1,000 people – and the flames ran into these forests and laid down.”
Then came the summer of 2010. On June 20, the Schultz fire began its run across 15,000 acres northeast of Flagstaff on the eastern slopes of the San Francisco Peaks.
“The fire stayed almost entirely on the national forest,” said Flagstaff District Ranger Mike Elson. “It did not burn any structures. There were no injuries or deaths. It was 100 percent contained within 10 days. From a firefighting perspective, it was a success.”
But the Schultz fire had burned hot and fast, destroying the ponderosa pine forest and slicking off the soils. And when northern Arizona’s monsoon season arrived, the resulting devastation changed everything about how Flagstaff residents understood wildfires and watersheds.
On July 20, the season’s second storm delivered 1.78 inches of rain in 45 minutes – with a peak, 10-minute intensity of 0.98 inch.
“Downstream flooding was surprisingly widespread,” researchers from the Rocky Mountain Research Station and the Arizona Geological Survey later reported.
The reasons were well understood by the soil and fire scientists sent to assess the damage: “Removal of the forest floor litter, alteration of soil properties, development of fire-induced water repellency, and loss of tree canopy in the moderate and high-severity burn areas dramatically impacted the hydrologic behavior of this landscape,” wrote Ann Youberg, Karen Koestner and Dan Neary. “Precipitation that, prior to the fire, would not have produced much runoff, produced very large post-fire flood flows and debris flows.”
The waters hit the community of Timberline west of U.S. 89, then the Fernwood development east of the highway, and ultimately low-lying areas in the Doney Park subdivision four miles from the burn.
A 12-year-old girl was killed when the flash flood hit her neighborhood.
Another monster storm on Aug. 16 delivered 1.06 inches of rain in 46 minutes, with a peak, 10-minute intensity of 0.59 inch, producing debris flows out of seven basins.
“The flooding was really just devastating,” said Elson. “There were almost daily torrents of water. People couldn’t understand why the Forest Service didn’t stop the flooding. Why couldn’t we just build dikes or channels or something to stop or hold the water?
“But no one knew where the water would go from one day to the next. We did what we could, but there is no way to fix a watershed overnight. You cannot turn off the water. The problem was just so massive. We needed time – years, not hours or days – for the watershed to heal.”
Flagstaff had its wakeup call. “Everyone knew the risk of fire,” Elson said, “but not the risk of flooding.”
Even during the monsoons, Summerfelt and Elson started wondering: What if the Schultz fire had crossed the ridgeline into the Rio de Flag watershed directly north of the city? What if those post-fire torrents had poured out of the Dry Lake Hills and directly into downtown Flagstaff and the Northern Arizona University campus?
They needed a watershed restoration plan, and they needed a significant amount of money to do the work.
Summerfelt went to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where officials charge water users a fee for forest management in the municipal watershed. He suggested the same to Flagstaff’s city manager, who said no. “Let’s take it to voters,” came the directive. Summerfelt gulped, then went to work.
Firefighters carried the $10 million bond campaign door to door in the few months they had before the November 2012 election.
“It was a very intense educational effort,” Elson said. “Those of us at the Forest Service couldn’t actually campaign for the bond, but we could provide information. We could explain that it just wasn’t going to be possible to treat the watershed without the funding – the ground was too steep and challenging, and there was so much ground to cover.”
Summerfelt’s fire crews were “uniquely positioned” to do the campaigning, their boss said. “Nationwide, in poll after poll, people have said that fire departments are the most trusted government service. Firefighters come and fix the problem. So we hit the streets and started talking.”
The previous 15 years of public education and successful restoration work gave bond advocates a head start, he said. “People in Flagstaff were educated about the wildfire threat. They understood the value of the treatments, they liked what they’d seen at our earlier projects, and they weren’t scared of doing more work. Now the Schultz fire had blown through an untreated area, and they had seen the consequences.”
All those factors led to the bond’s wide approval margin, Summerfelt said. “Had it just been the fire alone, the bond would not have passed. Without those 15 years of prior work, the community would not have been prepared. They understood the need, and they said yes.”
“The whole idea of taking the bond to the voters created a little concern,” added Elson. “But in the end, it was an extremely wise move from my perspective. That 74 percent approval gave us a lot of social capital moving forward.”
Flagstaff remains the only community with a voter-approved municipal bond funding watershed protection work on a national forest.
In 2013, a Rural Policy Institute study put a dollar figure on the potential flood risk, should a stand-replacing fire sweep through the Dry Lake Hills. The damage to downtown Flagstaff and NAU, the researchers said, could reach $1.2 billion.
There is no one-size-fits-all model for protecting a watershed from catastrophic wildfires and the devastating floods that so often follow.
“We have a model that has worked for us in Colorado, but it is not the only approach,” said Claire Harper, regional water partnership program manager with the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region in Denver. “I look at Arizona and New Mexico and at the Rio Grande, and they all have other models that bring different stakeholders to the table. And they’re all successful.”
What’s essential, Harper said, is for communities to recognize the connections, and the risks, and to start working toward their own unique solution.
The Denver metropolitan area’s partnership – From Forests to Faucets – dates to the 1996 Buffalo Creek fire and the 2002 Hayman fire, both on the Pike San Isabel National Forest, both in the Upper Platte River watershed that feeds Denver Water’s reservoirs.
Buffalo Creek burned 11,900 acres, while the Hayman fire covered 138,000 acres. The combination of those two wildfires and the significant rainstorms that followed pushed more than 1 million cubic yards of sediment into Strontia Springs Reservoir.
Before the fires, the reservoir had trapped about 250,000 cubic yards of sediment since its dam was completed in 1983.
“Denver Water spent $27.7 million in cleanup after those fires,” said Christina Burri, the utility’s watershed scientist. “We spent $16.5 million trying to dredge the sediment from the reservoir, and were still only able to remove about a third of it.”
The increased sediment continues to create operational challenges, cause water quality issues and clog treatment plants.
A host of state and federal agencies and private landowners suffered costs and losses as well. Fire agencies spent more than $42 million fighting the Hayman fire, and the U.S. Forest Service spent $37 million on restoration and stabilization efforts.
Private property losses totaled $38.7 million from the Hayman fire, which destroyed 600 structures, including 133 homes.
Denver Water and its longtime president, the late Chips Barry, knew they needed to work with the Forest Service and develop a landscape-scale approach to managing the three national forests from which its water sources flowed.
“We needed to reduce the risk of these catastrophic fires in our watershed,” said Burri.
It was an immense undertaking, with 2.5 million acres of watershed in the Denver Water collection system, spanning both sides of the Continental Divide. Fifty-four percent of that land was on the national forests.
“The fires and their aftermath started the conversation,” said Harper, at the Forest Service’s regional office. “How can we get out ahead of this problem?”
Barry met with the regional forester and, together, they endorsed the concept of a collaborative approach to watershed restoration and management. Their professional hydrologists, foresters, infrastructure specialists and land managers formed the Watershed Wildfire Protection Group. The Pinchot Institute studied the Front Range and issued a detailed report on the broader issue and the need for individual watershed wildfire assessments.
“The threat of high-severity wildfires to Colorado Front Range communities and their water supplies is real and unprecedented,” wrote the Pinchot Institute’s Dennis LeMaster, Guefan Shao and Jacob Donnay.
“When forests burn, the watersheds of which they are a part are affected,” they said. “The short-term impacts of high-severity wildfires are well known: destruction of timber, forage, wildlife habitat, scenic vistas and water supplies. Somewhat less familiar are the impacts of soil erosion and sediment, and organic debris flows in the immediate post-fire period, which can impose a heavy and costly toll on water infrastructure, such as conveyances and storage reservoirs.”
While Strontia Reservoir suffered the highest-dollar sedimentation in the Denver Water system, 101-year-old Cheesman Reservoir saw a continuing flow of mud, ash and decomposed granite following each new rainstorm. In the first four years following the Hayman fire, Denver Water spent $7.8 million at Cheesman, removing debris, replacing culverts, building sediment dams and seeding slopes.
And high-severity wildfires continue to threaten Front Range communities, with more acres of forest land burned each year, the Pinchot Institute warned. Climate change and mountain pine beetle infestations magnify the problem, increasing the risk of large-landscape, stand-replacing burns.
The only real protection for watersheds, then, is to lessen the severity and impacts of those fires by thinning the forests, the researchers concluded.
And the only real approach that makes sense, all agreed, is to prioritize work in the areas at highest risk of wildfire and post-fire erosion in the closest proximity to critical water infrastructure.
“Identifying those ‘zones of concern’ provided the foundation that led Denver Water to move forward with a partnership with the Forest Service,” said Harper. “That was the foundation. Then we could talk about the actual work. What do we do about this problem?”
That effort began in May 2010, on the day of the memorial service for Barry, who was killed in a farming accident on the land where he had planned to retire a few weeks later. The first memorandum of understanding between the Forest Service and Denver Water was signed two months later.
The first, five-year agreement called for a $16.5 million commitment by Denver Water, matched by the Forest Service, to finance forest and watershed health projects. Since then, more than 48,000 acres of national forest system lands have seen mechanical thinning, replanting, prescribed burns, or hand thinning and piling.
That work has covered three national forests: the Pike San Isabel, White River and Arapahoe Roosevelt.
“There is considerable complexity to this work,” Harper said. “We’ve thinned and cleared trees to reduce the risk and spread of wildfires. We’ve also done maintenance activities in already thinned areas. We’re doing prescribed fire, and invasive species work and reforestation in already burned watersheds.”
At the end of February 2017, the Forests to Faucets partnership was renewed and expanded for another five years. Denver Water again committed $16.5 million to forest and watershed health projects within its critical watersheds.
The Forest Service agreed to match $11.5 million of the funding, the Colorado State Forest Service promised $3 million in funding for projects on its land, and the Natural Resource Conservation Service is committed to a $2 million match for similar projects.
The expanded effort will bring forest projects to watersheds for Dillon, Strontia Springs, Gross, Antero, Eleven Mile Canyon, Cheesman and Williams Fork reservoirs, all intended to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires upstream.
Meanwhile, the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute will assess the program’s progress toward the goal of reducing the wildfire risk and improving the overall health of watersheds.
“There is no doubt that the partnership has helped us accelerate the important work being done in critical watersheds,” said Harper, at the Forest Service. “Together, by year seven, we have tangible benefits to show.”
“At the same time, there have been spinoff benefits,” she said. “We have created a model that has been used by other communities along the Front Range, and other groups and agencies are asking to join our work and contribute to the health of their forests.”
“These partnerships gave us a way to get out ahead of an issue that affects our communities’ long-term well-being,” Harper said.
And the citizens of Colorado, increasingly, understand the importance of that effort, she said.
“In the early days, when we announced the first round of funding, it was newsworthy that we were connecting forest health to our drinking water,” Harper said. “Now, as we listen to news reports on new fires, water is a standard part of the story. ‘There is a fire and it is in this watershed.’ There is a normalized, general awareness that forests are important to water – and that there is a connection between wildfires and the security of water.”
There are, of course, communities in the West where the connection between forests, watersheds and faucets is not part of the public discourse – and where, by extension, there is no shared sense of responsibility for watershed health.
“One of the great frustrations of folks in the upper watersheds and those working on forests and forest health issues in California is that folks in urban areas do not make the connection between forest and watershed health, and water quality and quantity,” said Jonathan Kusel, executive director of the Sierra Institute for Community and Environment. “That’s particularly true in California because some of the water is moved so far.
The greater problem stems from the lack of connection the public makes between a healthy forest and a healthy watershed, Kusel said. “We have tried for well over two decades to help Californians make that connection, with limited success.”
His organization lies in the Upper Feather River watershed, an area as large as Yellowstone National Park that fulfills annual water entitlements of 4.1 million acre feet in central and southern California.
The Feather River provides one-quarter of California’s drinking water. The city of Los Angeles is one of the beneficiaries of the watershed.
California’s complex system of water-delivery reservoirs, aqueducts, pipes and tunnels commands much of the public’s attention, Kusel said. “It’s such an amazing system, such a complexity of conveyance facilities, that most people associate their drinking water with that infrastructure. They don’t make the same connection with the green infrastructure at the start of the delivery system.”
So while metro areas like Denver and smaller cities like Santa Fe and Flagstaff are able to convince utilities, ratepayers and voters to finance forest restoration projects, Kusel has no such buy-in from Southern California communities.
“Our accounting methods for these environmental benefits of forests are limited,” he said. “The payment for ecosystem services is, for the most part, not there. And that’s what we need. We can come up with the charges that would make a huge difference in the overall health of our forests and our watersheds, but no one wants their pocket picked.”
Even without large-scale wildfires – and Northern California has experienced its share in recent years, Kusel can demonstrate how the lack of forest management has affected the Feather River watershed and downstream water users.
For more than 50 years, Pacific Gas & Electric and the California Department of Water Resources have monitored the river. During that time, water in the North Fork has declined by 400,000 acre feet annually, enough to provide drinking water to 400,000 homes in Southern California. In addition, the cold-water inflow to Lake Alamanor has declined by 40 percent, threatening its popular fishery. Much of the groundwater originates across the Mount Lassen divide, Kusel said, in the Burney and Hat Creek drainages.
“A 400,000 acre-foot loss is an astonishingly large number,” Kusel said. That amounts to a 5 percent to 8 percent decline in water passing through the Bay Delta region of Central California.
And while some have suggested that higher winter temperatures could be to blame for the water loss, PG&E contends the warmer air temperature hastens the onset of fire season but does not lead to such a large decline in water flows.
The leading hypothesis, Kusel said, is that increasing forest density since 1960 led to a reduction in the amount of water flowing out of the Feather River watershed.
“Increased stand density intercepts precipitation before it soaks into the forest floor,” he said. “More trees act like straws that suck water out of the ground and transpire it into the atmosphere. If that’s true, then the increased density of Sierra forests leads not only to an increase in the threat and incidence of large wildfires, but also to a reduction of water flowing out of the forest.”
Still, Kusel tells anyone who will give him an audience that the North Fork’s declining water flow represents an opportunity. If forest density does, in fact, contribute to the water loss, an investment in forest restoration will in turn improve watershed health, and ultimately, river flows.
Foresters and forest scientists know how to restore these watersheds, he said. But “we lack the resources to pay for the landscape-scale restoration that is needed and that would provide economic rejuvenation for forest communities.”
“Tens of millions of dollars are needed in the Feather River watershed alone, and hundreds of millions across the Sierra, to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire and improve ecosystem resilience,” Kusel said.
The Sierra Institute is working with Plumas County, the Forest Service and others to conduct research into the relationship between forest density and water production – to provide the scientific foundation for the landscape-scale forest restoration work they believe is warranted.
In addition, the institute is working with several collaborative groups that are pushing ahead with forest restoration projects.
One such effort is the Burney-Hat Creek Community Forest and Watershed Group, which is focused on the 400,000-acre Burney and Hat creek basins. The Forest Service manages 54 percent of that land base; the National Park Service, 7 percent; industrial timber companies, 30 percent; and non-industrial forest owners and ranchers, 7 percent.
“This group is moving forward,” Kusel said. “They are a success story.”
One project involves four timber companies (W.M. Beaty and Associates, Fruit Growers Supply Co., PG&E and Sierra Pacific Industries) and a commitment to restore Burney Meadows, a mix of forest, meadow and riparian habitats.
Together, the industrial timber operators submitted one harvest plan for the area, with the goal of reducing pine encroachment in the meadow, enhancing aspen growth, reducing the risk of wildfire, and improving watershed function.
They began, Kusel said, with 400 to 600 acres – and have since grown to 2,400 acres. They’ve linked into nearby restoration projects on the national forest, and already believe they’ve reduced the likelihood of catastrophic wildfire in communities to the north.
“With the support of state agencies, this project is growing into one of the largest watershed restoration projects in the state of California,” Kusel said.
Patience is essential, he advised. “With the perspective of having a few gray hairs on my head, one realizes that it takes longer than you think it will take, but that success is possible.”
“One has to be optimistic to stay in this business,” he said. “And I’d like to think that I have a level of optimism that does not go too far beyond reason. It’s not fast enough, but there is movement and, in the sweep of time, there has been tangible progress.”
Don’t read the success stories and think they were easily, or quickly, achieved, says Mark Martin, Forests to Faucets project and partnership coordinator on the Arapahoe Roosevelt National Forest.
In the first five years of the Forest Service’s partnership with Denver Water, Martin’s teams thinned more than 5,500 acres in the St. Vrain and Upper Colorado watersheds, on both sides of the Continental Divide west of Boulder.
Much of the Arapahoe Roosevelt’s focus was on protecting the infrastructure – “canals and tunnels and all kinds of diversions” – that Denver Water uses to channel water from the west side of the Rockies to its customers on the east side.
“It’s a complex system,” Martin said. “When you look at the whole package, it’s pretty amazing what they do with water.”
East of the mountains, work has focused on lower-elevation ponderosa pine forests at high risk for wind-driven, crown fires.
“We get so much wind along the Front Range,” Martin said. “So we need to try and change the structure of the stands to reduce the potential for catastrophic fire. We have to create some larger openings where fires can drop down to the ground, where firefighters have a chance to make a stop.”
On the west side of the mountains, the Forest Service worked in the “sea of lodgepole pine” at the higher elevations. There, the problems brought about by fire exclusion were magnified many times over by the mountain pine beetle epidemic.
In the Fraser-Winter Park area, the beetles killed 80 percent of the mature lodgepole pine, greatly increasing the standing dead and downed trees – and the fuel available to feed wildfires.
“The focus,” Martin said, “has been to go into those beetle-killed stands and remove a lot of the dead material, of clearing out those dead and downed trees. We’ve focused on the harvest.”
The community response to such widespread harvests can be a challenge, he said. “Every time we did a project and went into a new community, we would have to start over and bring people to the table with us. Not everybody buys into it. There are groups of people who fully support the work, and understand that their drinking water depends on the forest. But some people don’t see the big picture, and it’s a learning experience every time.”
“The more we can show success in doing this work, the more we set the stage for the next project,” Martin said. “We struggle a little bit with collaborative processes, but it’s coming along. It can be slow, but we just work through the issues.”
On the White River National Forest, timber management specialist Kerry Green counted 5,409 acres treated as part of the Forest to Faucets program between 2011 and 2016. Denver Water paid for $2.2 million of the work, while the Forest Service contributed $6.2 million.
The forest’s neighboring communities include five ski areas; an intense weekend influx of second-home owners and day-trippers; the towns of Breckenridge, Frisco, Dillon and Keystone; and Dillon Reservoir, one of Denver Water’s most critical storage facilities.
“When we first started proposing and implementing these projects, there were a lot of letters to the newspaper,” Green said. “But today, I’d say everyone understands they have a stake in our success. We have the full support of Summit County government and of the Summit County Wildfire Council.
“Overall, the community is a big supporter. The landscape has changed, obviously, with some of the work, but people seem to understand the big picture.”
Mountain pine beetles caused significant mortality in Summit County, up to 95 percent in some stands, Green said. “So we’ve really focused on the stands with lodgepole and dead trees in them. If you leave those dead trees standing, the damage to the soils will be much greater if a fire comes through there. And where the dead stands are behind these communities and resorts, we’ve got to reduce that fuel load from a community protection standpoint.”
Because of the high mortality rate, the White River crews did a good bit of clear-cutting, Green said, “because it met the needs of the landscape and tied into how lodgepole pine forests regenerate.”
And because so much of the lodgepole in Summit County is small diameter, the Forest Service signed a long-term contract with Eagle Valley Power in Gypsum to provide wood chips for power generation.
“That has been a good partnership,” Green said, “and it all ties back into Denver Water and the kind of collaborative approach it takes to protect this watershed.”
“We have 2.5 million acres of watershed in our collection system,” said Christina Burri, the watershed scientist at Denver Water. “So this must be an all-hands-on approach, and a very focused approach.”
For Denver Water officials, the priority is on the forests within their watersheds where a catastrophic wildfire would produce catastrophic impacts on the utility’s infrastructure and supply.
“We know that we cannot eliminate wildfires from these forests,” Burri said. “But we can reduce the fire intensity. What you deal with in these high-severity events is that everything burns. The soil is scorched. There is a lot more ash, and when the rains come they’re going to create floods of debris and ash into our reservoirs.”
Already, thinning and restoration work completed during the first five years of Forests to Faucets has proved the potential. On the Pike San Isabel National Forest, several subsequent wildfires started to make runs, then hit stands that had been thinned and laid down, giving firefighters a chance to gain control.
“In one instance, the Forest Service staff estimated that every dollar spent on the fuel break resulted in $10 saved responding to the fire,” Burri said. “There is a lot of benefit in knowing that we are achieving source water improvement and watershed health improvement.”
Similar magnitudes of achievement have been reported following revegetation projects in areas burned during the Hayman and Buffalo Creek fires. “There’s been a lot of planting in those burned areas to try and hold onto the soils,” Burri said.
Echoing Claire Harper’s comments at the Forest Service regional office, Burri emphasized the need for monitoring to rate the effectiveness of the forest treatments. “We’ve got to understand the benefits of this work, so we can focus on what works – and communicate to the public what works.”
The biggest lesson, though, as the partnership moves forward into its second round of funding is the need for a landscape-scale approach to reducing the threat of wildfire, she said.
“That’s why we are excited about this new agreement, and the addition of the Colorado State Forest Service and NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service) working with private landowners,” Burri said. “It has to be all hands, all lands.”
A crisis can help galvanize public support for forest restoration work. Flagstaff’s wildland fire program manager, Paul Summerfelt, knows that reality all too well.
But he also knows what he believes to be a greater truth: “There is enough bad fire stuff going on West-wide every year somewhere, that each individual community shouldn’t need its own crisis to get engaged.”
And the wildfire danger just keeps growing over time, he said. “A lot of us who have been in wildland fire suppression for a long time were not surprised by the growing severity and cost and size of fires over the last three decades.
“I’ve worked in this field for 40 years. I can remember when I started, a fire that would wrap us around the axle was 100 acres. Now it barely makes the news unless you’ve burned 10,000 acres. If people are aware of these fires, and they are, then they can certainly respond.”
After Flagstaff voters approved their historic $10 million bond, foresters focused on significant threats to two key watersheds: in the Dry Land Hills north of town, where a stand-replacing fire and subsequent monsoonal rains could cause $1.2 billion in damage to downtown, the university and the railroad; and on the steep slopes of Mormon Mountain, in the headwaters of Upper Lake Mary, the reservoir that provides 50 percent of Flagstaff’s drinking water.
Both areas had not been adequately addressed in the past because of “complicating factors,” according to the Flagstaff Forest Health and Water Supply Protection Project implementation plan.
Those complications included steep and rocky terrain, at-risk wildlife species, social concerns, and economic infeasibility due to low-value timber and high-cost treatments.
The bond gave foresters an opportunity to work collectively, across boundaries, on a solution that left these critical watersheds more resilient and less at risk for stand-replacing wildfires.
Because of the Schultz fire, both the public and land and fire managers fully understood the risk to the two watersheds, should the next high-severity fire and floods hit those mountainsides.
“We had projections showing extensive, severe flooding throughout Flagstaff following a high-intensity fire in the Dryland Hills,” said Mike Elson, the Forest Service’s Flagstaff district ranger. “And we knew the Lake Mary Reservoir and treatment plant could become non-functional because of sediment and carbon influx following a severe wildfire in that watershed. The treatment plant, in fact, would have to be abandoned.”
The moment a high-intensity fire breaks out above Lake Mary, the city has lost its treatment plant, said Summerfelt. “We simply couldn’t handle the influx of sediments and chemicals. Right then, we’d have to start drilling 11 new wells, at $2 million a well. And that doesn’t count what it would cost to treat and deliver that water.”
In the five years since the bond passed, the city itself has logged 525 acres within the project boundaries, with another 400 acres planned for this summer. The Forest Service has completed 263 acres of timber cutting and 200 acres of hand thinning and burning.
Another 600-acre logging contract was awarded last summer for the Dryland Hills, with work set for completion this year. In October, the Forest Service will offer a 2,600-acre logging contract for Mormon Mountain, including helicopter and cable logging for the steepest slopes, followed by another 1,000 acres of hand-thinning.
About 11,000 acres will be affected by the work. Some of the bond funds will also be used to reduce the fire danger on nearby state lands.
“We’ll be in a much better situation at that point,” Elson said. “We don’t want to completely eliminate fire, and we probably couldn’t anyway. But all our modeling shows that once this work is completed, the risk of a stand-replacing fire will be much, much lower. Overall, these watersheds will be in much better shape.”
Opposition has been minimal, said Jessica Richardson, the Forest Service’s lead on the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project. “I really think there will always be people who are not 100 percent in support, but even those folks are supportive of the general concept of what we are doing.”
It goes back to the bond’s 74 percent approval, said Elson. “We had the social capital. So some of the groups that might have opposed us chose not to in this case, even though there are visual impacts, steep slopes and spotted owls. There is an excitement about the project in the community.”
Elson and Richardson expect more questions when the larger logging projects get under way in another year. Did you have to cut those trees? What about the trees behind my house?
“We know there will be some kind of shock factor,” Elson said. “Having said that, I also know that a few years after the work is finished, these forests will be beautiful. People will see that, and appreciate that.”
And that’s good, he said, because there will be more work to do once the bond monies are exhausted. “The landscape work will continue. That’s been a part of what we do for 20 years now.”
The interagency, cross-boundary cooperation also will outlive the bond.
“There’s a realization that if we all just do our own little piece, then all those little pieces are going to get swallowed up in the inevitable fire,” said Summerfelt. “It’s when we begin linking everything together, regardless of which side of the fence you’re standing on, that’s when we get the results we need.”
“It’s been amazing to be a part of this,” said Elson. “It’s like being part of the Dream Team. There’s so much cooperation and support. Sure, we have our different jurisdictions and perspectives, but there’s an amazing level of interest in making sure this all works. We all know the community is depending on us.”