Why we're involved in forest health issues

Arizona's forests are unhealthy and overgrown, and without action, catastrophic fires are almost a certainty – putting the state's physical beauty, economic vitality and water supplies at risk.

That's why a team of SRP employees across multiple departments is working to find solutions.

To understand why SRP is so involved, it's first important to understand why forest health matters to Greater Phoenix as a whole.

Forests in northern Arizona are the lifeblood of SRP's water supply. The runoff from rain and snow that fall on those forests flows downstream, filling reservoirs on the Salt and Verde rivers.

When those forests are healthy, they protect winter snowpack, preventing it from melting too fast. And they filter runoff so that water flowing into reservoirs is clean and relatively free of sediment.

Scorched forests do the opposite, exposing snow to excessive sunlight, which causes it to melt more quickly. Runoff from fire-scarred areas drains into SRP's reservoirs and brings with it ash and debris. This waste settles at the base of the dams, reducing reservoir capacity and affecting water quality.

Since 2002, more than a quarter of SRP's watershed has been burned by megafires such as the Rodeo-Chediski and Wallow fires.

The solution is to remove the excess small-diameter trees and brush that overcrowd modern forests – the result of dated forest management policies that emphasized extinguishing all fires. Historically, small fires were a natural part of the ecosystem in Arizona's forests, removing excess vegetation and improving soil conditions.

The problem is now so large that millions of acres of Arizona forest are at risk of severe fire and in need of thinning. But money to address the problem is in short supply.

Map showing areas burned on the SRP watershed since 2002. This includes the Rodeo-Chedeski Fire on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in 2002, the Warm Fire in 2006 in Kaibab National Forest, the Schultz Fire in 2010 in the Coconino National Forest and Wallow Fire in 2011 in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.

The first efforts to address the issue on a widespread scale began with the signing of a 2011 agreement that launched the Four Forest Restoration Initiative – a U.S. Forest Service-endorsed plan to thin 50,000 acres of forest annually for 20 years across the Tonto, Coconino, Apache-Sitgreaves and Kaibab national forests.

But thinning work has been slow to take root, and the problem isn't contained to those four national forests. Private, state, tribal and Bureau of Land Management lands are also affected.

So SRP is working with numerous groups including the National Forest Foundation, the U.S. Forest Service, the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University, the Nature Conservancy, the state Forestry Department and private industry to seek joint solutions.

Two conferences, one in October 2013 and one in May 2014, were held to bring various entities together and draft action strategies.

And SRP has begun to explore doing thinning work of its own, particularly around C.C. Cragin Reservoir, a reservoir on the Mogollon Rim surrounded by dense forest.

The meetings identified numerous funding sources to explore including water user fees, bonding efforts, the sale of biomass fuels created from felled timber, tourism-based taxes and capital funding campaigns. And they examined successful campaigns, such as in Flagstaff, where voters approved a bond to repair forests in and around the San Francisco Peaks.

SRP is planning a follow-up to the workshop in the next year, where progress will be reported and next-level goals set.