State, feds work to protect watersheds

State, feds work to protect watersheds

The Telegraph Fire on June 4, 2021, the day it began and which went on to burn almost 181,000 acres in Gila and Pinal counties. PHOTO COURTESY U.S. FOREST SERVICE

Wildfires both leave scars in their wake that threaten the rural communities around them with deadly floods and threaten both wildlife habitats and human drinking water that depends on healthy watersheds.

“Wildfires can negatively impact watersheds, in both the short and long term, including in terms of water quality and their susceptibility to erosion and flooding,” said Department of Forestry and Fire Management spokeswoman Tiffany Davila.

This was apparent last year, when communities such as Flagstaff and Globe suffered severe flooding in the burn scars of recent wildfires during monsoon. State and federal officials will be working on several projects this year that, they hope, will help repair watersheds that have already been damaged and protect ones that are vulnerable.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack came to Phoenix in January to announce a 10-year strategy to improve forest health and reduce wildfire risk funded with about $3 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure law passed last year. It sets goals for the Forest Service of treating up to an additional 20 million acres on Forest Service land and supporting the treatment of another 30 million acres on other federal, state, tribal and private lands, according to the Department of Agriculture’s announcement.

While the main focus of the initiative is on protecting the areas where communities are at highest risk – that is, places where a fire could destroy homes or threaten communities and infrastructure – the Forest Service is also trying to identify “additional high risk areas for water and other values,” according to the announcement.

“The negative impacts of today’s largest wildfires far outpace the scale of efforts to protect homes, communities and natural resources,” Vilsack said. “Our experts expect the trend will only worsen with the effects of a changing climate, so working together toward common goals across boundaries and jurisdictions is essential to the future of these landscapes and the people who live there.”

The Coconino National Forest announced shortly thereafter that it would be using the money for several watershed protection projects in the Flagstaff and Mogollon Rim areas. Some, said Flagstaff District Ranger Matt McGrath, will go toward treatment and tree thinning around Mormon Mountain. This is part of the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project that started with a $10 million bond passed by Flagstaff voters in 2012. Projections show a fire on the mountain, followed by erosion, could leave half of Flagstaff’s water supply from the Lake Mary Reservoir unusable.

Coconino National Forest also plans to put some of the money toward watershed restoration on Forest Service land near the burn scar of the Musuem Fire. Another ongoing project that will receive a boost is the Cragin Watershed Protection Project, which aims to treat 64,000 acres near the C.C. Cragin Reservoir, which is in a high-risk area for wildfire and is a water source for Payson and some surrounding communities. Several state and federal agencies are involved, as well as groups such as the National Wild Turkey Federation and the National Forest Foundation.

DFFM also has “a handful of active and upcoming projects that provide watershed protection and enhancements,” Davila said. “The Roberts project is a 588-acre project that improves two key watersheds, Ellison Creek and Green Valley Creek which flow into the Verde and Salt River watersheds.”

She also pointed to the Baker project, where DFFM is working with the Coconino National Forest and Salt River Project to protect the C.C. Cragin watershed.

DFFM also provides grants to other agencies to work on similar projects. Ones that have recently been funded, Davila said, include a 38-acre project being carried out by the National Forest Foundation to treat “high priority, steep sloping-areas that will contribute directly to reduced fire and flooding risk, protecting the City of Williams, Coconino County residents, and downstream communities throughout the Verde watershed.” The agency also recently gave Apache County money for a 90-acre project to protect Eager and nearby wildlife habitat and watersheds from wildfire.

“These are just two examples of grant allocation for fuels work with specific scopes of forest health and watershed protection built in,” she said.