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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Fossil Creek Dam Removal

Air Date: Week of

An Arizona utility plans to shut down its small hydroelectric dam on Fossil Creek. It will be the first dam decommissioned in the southwest. Though the move is seen as largely symbolic, conservationists says it's a sign of more to come.


CURWOOD: The Arizona power company APS is working out the final steps of a deal with conservationists and regulators to stop using a dam and restore Fossil Creek in central Arizona to a more natural flow. It's a small dam on a small river. But as Mark Moran of member station KJZZ in Phoenix reports, the move could mark in big change in attitudes toward conservation and habitat restoration in the Southwest.


MORAN: Fossil Creek is not easy to get to, even in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. From the central Arizona town of Strawberry, you head down a twisting, turning, and bumpy dirt road perched perilously, thousands of feet above the rugged, rocky ridges of the Tonto National Forest. At the end of the nail-biting ride sits the town, if you want to call it that, of Irving. The place consists of a few small houses, some trees, a flagpole, and a hydroelectric generator operated by APS. The century-old generator, which supplied power for all of the brand new streetlights in the booming town of Phoenix in the 1920s is on the National Registry of Historic Places.


MORAN: The water from Fossil Creek gets here through miles of metal flume, a manmade channel that twists through the rocky hillside. The generator's responsible for a tiny fraction, one fortieth of one percent of APS's overall power, and about half a million dollars in revenue each year. But the agreement in the works between environmental groups and the utility company will cause this huge machine to fall silent.

(Bird calls, footfalls)

MORAN: It's four miles to the head of the flume, and the diversion dam on Fossil Creek.

STEWART: I'll just caution you that the rattlesnakes are already out. I ran onto one day before yesterday. Most of the ones you see up here are Mojave species, which are the green ones.

MORAN: APS dam manager Mike Stewart gives me a tour.

STEWART: On December the thirty-first at midnight in 2004, this gate would be raised. That would eliminate this diversion of the water going this way and into the flume.

MORAN: Returning the flow to Fossil Creek will be that simple. In fact, you can straddle the length of the gate. So while the dam will be decommissioned, when the gate is raised only a fraction of the water will flow through. Complex negotiations remain over whether the dam itself will come down. And if it doesn't, who will maintain it? A quarter-mile hike upstream brings you to the genesis of Fossil Creek and huge pools of crystal clear water, graciously shaded by canopies of Ponderosa pines and other trees. Here at the source of the creek, natural artesian springs gush out of the ground at the rate of 470 gallons per second.

FORREST: And this is just Mother Nature's generosity in action.

MORAN: Lisa Forrest is with the Center for Biological Diversity, which has been instrumental in negotiating the restoration of Fossil Creek.

FORREST: It's incredible. And here in the middle of the desert it is an absolute oasis, and look at the vegetation it supports. This is not the kind of vegetation you expect to see in the central desert. Tall trees, huge sycamores, cottonwoods. Lush undergrowth.

MORAN: Along its quarter-mile path to the dam downstream, Fossil Springs creates beautiful azure-colored travertine pools, natural springs at a constant 72 degrees, and habitat for countless species. Forrest says restoring Fossil Creek is symbolic after a century of damming up waterways. Fossil Creek is not alone. Environmental groups say there is tremendous public support to remove more than 100 dams from California to Pennsylvania, some big, some small.

FORREST: It's a whole new era. It's the beginning of a different way of thinking about rivers and streams and waterways. For the last hundred years we've been busy putting up dams. We've put up 100,000 dams in the United States. And just now are they starting to come down.

MORAN: Environmentalists consider the restoration of Fossil Creek a major victory. But there's nothing stopping another utility company from seeking the license to operate the dam, or ranchers who could turn their cattle loose on the land along Fossil Creek.

FORREST: We're sort of in the mother bear phase here, where we're protecting it from all the other impacts that may happen to it once it's restored.

MORAN: Environmentalists are celebrating the decommissioning, but that's of little consolation to Jake Randall, whose entire life has revolved around the generator in Irving and the kids he raised here. When the generator shuts down, he'll be out of work.

RANDALL: Certainly, for all of us losing our jobs, there are some hard feelings. We don't understand the politics. Of course, you know, living out here, I guess you don't understand politics too much. But I certainly don't have too much nice to say about most of those groups.

MORAN: The coalition of environmental groups and APS say they'll forward their agreement to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission by the first of July. For Living on Earth, I'm Mark Moran in Irving, Arizona.



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