A New Page in History is Unfolding at Fossil Creek

November 05, 2004

A new page in history is unfolding at Fossil Creek below the Mogollon Rim.

This unique stream located between Strawberry and Camp Verde is one step closer to being restored to its historic flows after providing central Arizona the electricity to light its way through most of the 20th century.

Since 1908, 95-percent of the flows for Fossil Creek has been diverted to run the Childs Hydroelectric Power Plant, and later on, the Irving Hydroelectric Power Plant as well. Arizona Public Service (APS) has agreed to decommission these active yet historic hydroelectric facilities so that Fossil Creek, a rare travertine stream and associated ecosystem, can be returned to its historic flows.

The Fossil Creek story is one with multiple layers of uniqueness.

This picturesque travertine stream typically flows at around 43 cfs day-in and day-out, making it very unusual in arid Arizona, especially during drought periods.

Prior to being diverted, Fossil Creek supported a distinctive aquatic ecosystem. The highly mineralized water in Fossil Creek resulted in the formation of large travertine dams, pools and waterfalls extending the 14 miles from the Fossil Creek Springs just below the Mogollon Rim to the Verde River below. Those dams and waterfalls resulted in highly oxygenated water, which provided extra raw energy to help fuel the aquatic ecosystem.

“Once the flows are restored, those dams, pools and waterfalls are expected to rebuild naturally over time, thereby restoring a distinctive riparian ecosystem that we expect to become a model native fish habitat in Arizona,” says Dave Weedman, an Arizona Game and Fish Department biologist.

The physical restoration process itself takes time.

During the past several weeks, state and federal biologists, along with a cadre of helpful volunteers, salvaged 1,200 speckled dace, roundtail chubs, Sonora suckers and desert suckers from the upper reach of Fossil Creek located between the Fossil Creek Spring and the Irving Hydroelectric Plant. The salvaged fish were held in special tanks placed near Irving. “Those salvaged native fish are some of the biological hopes for tomorrow,” Weedman says.

Last week, biologists treated the section of stream just below Fossil Springs to remove exotic fish, such as green sunfish.

On Oct. 29, the salvaged native fish were given a short helicopter ride back home to the upper reach of Fossil Creek, completing an integral and necessary step in the stream restoration process.

The Bureau of Reclamation helicopter was fitted with a 100-foot-long cable. The native fish were placed in a 55-gallon drum, and the drum was attached to the long cable. The drum was airlifted upstream and gingerly lowered to the boulder-strewn creek side, where waiting biologists placed the fish in buckets and hand-delivered them back to their Fossil Creek home.

Currently, crews are also busy building a barrier upstream from where Fossil Creek empties into the Verde River. The barrier will keep nonnative fish in the Verde River, such as smallmouth bass and flathead catfish, from traveling upstream and negatively impacting the native fish.

Larry Riley, the fisheries chief for the Game and Fish Department, says that once the flows are restored this coming spring, Fossil Creek has the potential in future years to become a unique native roundtail chub fishery. “Could Fossil Creek become a blue ribbon roundtail chub fishery? It has that potential.”

The Fossil Creek story is also one of teamwork among diverse groups and interests.

“To call this a model of cooperation is an understatement,” says Riley. “When you see state, federal and university biologists all working elbow to elbow in cold water along with volunteers to salvage native fish from Fossil Creek – from daylight to dusk many days in a row – mere words can’t do such a team effort sufficient justice.”

The partners in the process to restore the native fish include the Arizona Game and Fish Department, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Northern Arizona University, and the Bureau of Reclamation, with some helpful fly rods in the hands of the Red Rock Flycasters from Sedona.

For the entire hydroelectric plant decommissioning process, the list of participants is even longer, and includes the Yavapai Apache Nation, San Carlos Apache Nation, Salt River Project, American Rivers, Northern Arizona Audubon Society, Center for Biodiversity, The Nature Conservancy (Arizona chapter), Sierra Club (Grand Canyon Chapter), the Arizona Riparian Council, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

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