What we can learn from devastating forest fires

Guest Opinion//February 18, 2021

What we can learn from devastating forest fires

Guest Opinion//February 18, 2021

This April 30, 2018, photo provided by the U.S. Forest Service shows a helicopter fighting a wildfire in north-central Arizona. Fire officials say higher humidity and expected cloud cover Tuesday, May 1, 2018, should help nearly 600 firefighters battling the blaze. (U.S. Forest Service, Coconino National Forest via AP)
This April 30, 2018, photo provided by the U.S. Forest Service shows a helicopter fighting a wildfire in north-central Arizona.  (U.S. Forest Service, Coconino National Forest via AP)

Over the past 10 years, we have watched as large wildfires ravaged the watershed in and around the Salt and Verde rivers. The devastation proves one important fact that must be addressed now – our forests are unhealthy.

SRP manages the water supply for much of the Valley – most of which comes from 8.3 million acres of land in northern Arizona. Snowfall and rain provide the water that travels through the watershed into SRP reservoirs, which is then delivered to homes and businesses via canals.

The forested lands that harness this precious resource have been hit by devastating wildfires and are primed for more infernos like those that impacted California and Colorado. Many forested lands in northern Arizona have thousands of trees per acre, which can fuel large wildfires that are uncontrollable with catastrophic impacts.

Wildfires not only devastate natural ecosystems, they also degrade water quality and resiliency. After a wildfire, rainfall washes ash and debris into rivers and reservoirs. The large amount of material that washes into SRP’s reservoirs reduces our water storage capacity and damages water infrastructure.

Preventative strategic thinning will not only improve the health of forests and watersheds but also reduce the need to reforest large sections of our forests. That is why SRP has committed to increasing forest restoration through partnerships, education and supporting industry to thin 50,000 acres per year or 500,000 acres by 2035.

Having a sustainable forest product industry is critical to restoring forest lands. To achieve meaningful progress, expanding existing industry capacity and attracting new forest product companies are critical. It will also have the added benefit of providing more rural jobs, increasing infrastructure and equipment investments, and helping drive rural economic development opportunities.

Elvy Barton
Elvy Barton

In our commitment to forest health, SRP has partnered with the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the state to develop and issue a request for proposal for thinning on 605,000 to 818,000 acres across northern and central Arizona for the next 20 years.

We are also working on the Cragin Watershed Protection Project, which allows U.S. Forest Service to move forward with prescribed burns and forest thinning across the watershed.

Finally, SRP offers a way for residential customers to invest $3 a month toward strategic forest thinning projects through the Healthy Forest Initiative at srpnet.com/healthyforest. We anticipate this program will help thin about 500 acres annually.

SRP is also committed to data- and science-based forest restoration efforts, and we have invested in numerous research projects, such as an innovative and proprietary research and field instrumentation, known as Flowtography, that provides real-time visual watershed condition and forest data. These leading-edge efforts provide knowledge and tools to implement strategic thinning projects, evaluate the ecological benefits, and understand the effects of climate change. 

We can learn a lot from the wildfires that have ravaged our state – we must act on those lessons now. With support from partners, industry, our customers and researchers, we are building the tools to reach our forest health goal. 

Elvy Barton leads SRP’s forest restoration partnerships, programs and policy analysis initiatives.