Flagstaff, Arizona’s wakeup call came in the summer of 2010. Its leaders and citizens haven’t taken public safety or clean drinking water for granted ever since.
That was the year when June’s Schultz wildfire raced across 15,000 acres northeast of Flagstaff on the eastern slopes of the San Francisco Peaks. Remarkably, the fire stayed entirely within the Coconino National Forest boundaries and burned no homes.
Then came northern Arizona’s monsoon season, and a seemingly endless series of floods carried torrents of water out of the burned area and into Flagstaff subdivisions, taking the life of a 12-year-old girl and damaging hundreds of homes.
In the aftermath, officials from the city and Forest Service warned of other calamities waiting to unfold: 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?
Or what if the next wildfire ignited to the south, scorching the steep slopes of Mormon Mountain, in the headwaters of Upper Lake Mary, the reservoir that provides 50 percent of Flagstaff’s drinking water?
“We had projections showing extensive, severe flooding throughout Flagstaff following a high-intensity fire in the Dry Lake 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.”
Flagstaff needed a watershed restoration plan and a significant amount of money to do the work.
Galvanized by the Schultz fire’s stunning aftermath, voters overwhelmingly passed a $10 million bond in 2012 to help pay for thinning and intentional burns in the Dry Lake Hills and Lake Mary watersheds. Flagstaff remains the nation’s only community with a voter-approved municipal bond funding watershed protection work on a national forest.
The effort has been highlighted as a role model for effective partnerships between local and federal governments to help protect a critical source of clean water and reduce the risk to essential buildings and infrastructure downstream.
Five years later, about a third of the bond money has been spent and considerable work accomplished, but a recent evaluation determined the money won’t achieve as much work as projected – or needed. In fact, the remaining thinning is estimated to cost 2 to 5 times more than originally calculated.
The higher cost estimates are due to the lack of markets to sell the trees harvested. That means the city and Forest Service must pay contractors more to dispose of all that material.
In addition, very few contractors in the area have the type of equipment needed to harvest the steeper hillsides that surround the municipal reservoir – helicopters and cable machines.
So now the city is evaluating its options for procuring the funds needed to accomplish the remaining watershed restoration projects.
The importance of businesses that can buy and use these trees, as well as ones that have the equipment and skilled workers, cannot be underestimated. This is an issue for counties and states throughout much of the western U.S.
When these businesses no longer exist, the result is higher taxes to pay for forest and watershed restoration, always a difficult proposition given local communities’ diverse funding needs: education, infrastructure, social services. When taxes aren’t raised and the work is forgone, though, citizens and communities must live with the consequences of future fires and floods.
When, however, businesses exist that will buy the trees, helping to pay for some or all of the work, fewer tax dollars are needed – and more tax money is generated by those businesses and their employees. Communities achieve critical public safety and watershed protection.
The Arizona Daily Sun has more details on Flagstaff’s quandary in this recent article. It’s worth a read, as a cautionary tale for communities across the West:
More than five years after Flagstaff voters approved a $10 million bond to thin forests around the city’s watersheds, city staff say they now expect the bond money won’t cover all the work that needs to be done.
A report sent to city council Thursday states the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project, or FWPP, faces a $4.5 million shortfall, meaning about 35 percent of the project won’t be completed with current bond funding. Unfunded portions will likely include part of the forest thinning planned for the Dry Lake Hills area north of Flagstaff and all of the work that was to happen on Mormon Mountain, in the Lake Mary watershed.