My Turn: Fossil Creek a national treasure

As part of our ongoing educational effort on the regions water resources the Verde River Basin Partnership will be highlighting the magnificent tributaries to the Verde River. In this article the Partnership has chosen Fossil Creek. You can learn more about the Verde River Watershed by going to www.vrbp.org.

Fossil Creek is a gem, both within Arizona and nationally. The color of its waters ranges from the bright blue-green of turquoise to the dark green of deep jade.

This now-perennial creek provides spectacular riparian habitat within an arid landscape. Red tailed hawks and common black hawks soar and nest above Fossil Creek’s waters, where otters and beavers frolic, while javelina, mountain lions and other mammals feed on its shores and in the surrounding areas that survive solely because of the creek.

In March 2009 Fossil Creek was awarded federal designation as a Wild and Scenic River. With the public enjoying and protecting the creek responsibly, the creek can continue to meet the high standards of this designation.

Fossil Creek is within the Verde River Watershed. Its headwaters are fed by

Fossil Springs, which are located about 5 miles west of Strawberry, Arizona, About 1,

600 feet below the Mogollon Rim, the Springs are on the floor of the remote and ruggedly scenic Fossil Creek Canyon.

Some have found this series of crystal clear springs to be the finest set of springs in Arizona.

They flow at a rate of 20,000 gallons of water per minute, which equals nearly 29 million gallons per day. The stream, with its impressive waterfalls, continues for over 16 miles before it meets the Verde River.

The creek and canyon received their names from the abundant travertine formations that have formed along the stream bed. These travertine rock formations are unique in Arizona. They are formed by high levels of calcium carbonate in the water, which causes large, fossil-like rock growth.

Fossil Creek has an interesting history -- one that teaches us the need to actively protect this important and unique waterway. As with the rest of the Verde River Watershed’s riparian areas, Fossil Creek has a long history of human habitation. The area has a number of Dilzhe’e (Western Apache) cultural sites.

The Dilzhe’e lived along the creek for generations, and several families consider this area to be their homeland.

Settlers later saw the water in terms of how it could help them at that time. By 1900 rancher Lew Turner from the Verde Valley had claimed water rights on Fossil Creek, and soon afterwards plans were made to build a hydroelectric plant, towns, and mining operations in the region.

The Childs-Irving hydroelectric facilities were built between 1908 and 1916. When commissioned, the projects significantly dried up all but about a half-mile of Fossil Creek from the diversion site to the confluence with the Verde River about 14 river miles downstream.

In the meantime, the areas around the creek received national protection. Fossil Creek flows through two National Forest Service Wilderness Areas: Fossil Springs Wilderness, designated in 1984, and Mazatzal Wilderness, which was designated in 1964 as one of the original wilderness areas in the nation.

Prior to the Wilderness Act in 1964 Mazatzal Wilderness had been established as a Primitive Area in 1938. The Wilderness Act’s definition of wilderness is “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

These Wilderness Areas, though, were not quite complete. They lacked a free-flowing Fossil Creek. This changed in 2005 after successful negotiations lead by a broad-based coalition of the Center for Biological Diversity, Yavapai-Apache Nation and others.

This coalition convinced the power plants owners, Arizona Public Service, that everyone would benefit from the decommissioning of the Irving and Childs power plants and restoring the environment to its prior perennial state. Work on restoring the ecosystem is still in progress.

In March 2009, Fossil Creek became the second Arizona waterway to be designated a Wild and Scenic River.

The other waterway is one into which Fossil Creek runs: the lower section of the Verde River. On October 2, 1968 President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

The Act stated “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States that certain selected rivers of the Nation which, with their immediate environments, possess outstanding remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values, shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

Today Fossil Creek is free flowing for its entire length. As flows have been restored limestone is naturally depositing once again, creating deep pool and waterfall habitat for several species of native imperiled fish, which have been reintroduced into the creek. The region now has recreational opportunities that have not been available for over a hundred years.

As indicated above instead of preservation man had other designs for Fossil Creek. Luckily, we have now started to reverse the serious impacts brought about by expediency. Now we have the challenge to sustain the efforts of those who brought Fossil Creek to where it is today.

Due to the wilderness designations of surrounding National Forest Lands there is no immediate impact from population growth. Yet the springs are fed from groundwater recharge along the high country of the Mogollon Rim where there is the potential for population growth. Furthermore, since the area currently has many more recreational opportunities it is seeing an influx of people seeking the beauty and solitude of this magnificent ecosystem.

The additional stresses that this influx brings could have a profound impact on water quality, the travertine formations for which the creek is named, wildlife and endangered aquatic species.

Arizona has not had a stellar history in protecting its riparian habitat, groundwater and surface waters. Current state laws are not enough to protect in stream flow and designation as a Wild and Scenic River does not guarantee priority on surface water rights.

In order preserve this national treasure we will need to be ever vigilant as resource management priorities change.

Tom O’Halleran is chairman of the Verde River Basin Partnership.

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