The Childs-Irving Hydroelectric Plant west of Strawberry is due to become the first hydropower dam system in the state, and the second in the nation, to be forced from service.
And Fossil Creek -- which has powered the plants' turbines for more than 90 years -- will become the first river in Arizona history to be restored to its natural state.
Arizona Public Service Company, owner of the twin plants, agreed Wednesday to close Childs-Irving and allow the 14-mile, spring-fed creek to flow freely by 2004.
The plan was prompted by an eight-year environmental crusade that began in 1991 when the plants' 30-year Federal Energy Commission license came up for renewal.
Five environmental groups took that opportunity to spearhead a campaign to shut down the plants and revive Fossil Creek.
Reduced to a trickle
Ninety percent of the creek's water is currently diverted to drive the power plants' turbines, said Craig Nesbit, APS' manager of news services, Pinnacle West. "The main purpose (of the agreement) is to get that water back into the creek and return the area to its natural state."
The power company's first step in that direction will be to dismantle and remove the structures, pipes, tunnels, and more than 10 miles of wood and metal flumes used to divert water both above and below ground, he said.
The groups that negotiated the plan with APS are the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), Northern Arizona Audubon, Sierra Club, American Rivers and the Nature Conservancy.
End of an era
Once APS shuts down electrical production and surrenders its license, the area will become Forest Service land. And by 2009, said Lisa Force, CBD's Phoenix office director, Fossil Creek should be flowing at about 321 gallons per minute and fully restored to its original state.
Of course, Childs-Irving, which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, have been around so long that not even the area's oldest old-timers are likely to recall what that original state was like.
The $500,000 power plant project was put into service in 1909 by the Arizona Power Company, the predecessor to APS. The plants supplied power to towns and cities from Phoenix to Flagstaff back when the production of 4.2 megawatts of electricity per hour -- enough to power 1,000 average homes -- was more than a fraction of APS' statewide megasystem.
Return to nature
Although the plan is to turn Fossil Creek into a recreation area, Force is quick to point out that the area will hardly be typical of the term because the project's primary goal is conservation.
"For one thing, you'll have to hike about two miles to get to the springs whether or not you use the existing APS maintenance roads, and they're awful," she said. "You don't need a 4-wheel drive to navigate them, just really good nerves. Most people will choose to hike, I'm sure."
Some of those roads will eventually be closed or turned into hiking trails, said CBD conservation chair Robin Silver.
The dam may be removed, or "they may breach the dam and let the water go over it," Force said. "The dam is 50 feet high, so that could make for a pretty spectacular waterfall."
Once the creek is again running at full force, it will provide animals and threatened and endangered fish with a natural refuge.
Force also promised that another spectacular sight -- one that's 100-percent natural -- will be visible in about 10 years.
"The spring waters are laden with minerals-- including calcium carbonate, which produces travertine, a rare stone deposited by very few waterways. In time, these deposits will form absolutely beautiful wading pools, swimming pools, rock slides. And the whole length of the stream will blossom after being deprived of water for 90 years. It's character will change dramatically."
An historic first step
Both Force and Silver stress that the area's natural beauty and recreational opportunities are only pleasant by-products of what they consider an historic agreement.
"The bottom line is this: Within the foreseeable future, Fossil Creek will be the only year-round flowing stream in the entire Verde River drainage," Silver said, "and it will be running at about 43 cubic feet per second. Last June, the total flows in the Verde River at Camp Verde were only 12 cubic feet per second. What this means is that the Verde is drying up, and it's not going to get any better.
"Arizona has lost almost 90 percent of its rivers within our lifetime because they've been dammed, diverted, or dried up from too much pumping and cattle grazing.
"For once, a lost Arizona river has been saved."