After 100 Years, Fossil Creek Returning To Natural Beauty

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Ian Reid left home in Ashland, Ore. weeks ago to help return one of the country's most pristine riparian areas to what it was more than 100 years ago.

"This was something I really wanted to be a part of," he said. "I don't know of any other place in the country this is happening."

The U.S. Forest Service Fishery biologist, who calls the Rogue River in Southern Oregon in the Siskyou National Forest his workplace, had volunteered to help in the restoration of Fossil Creek northwest of Strawberry.

Among his first chores was to work alongside state game officials, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation to reintroduce native fish into the creek.

As a helicopter hovered over Fossil Creek on a cool, crisp October morning, Reid donned the gear he would need for a rigorous three-mile trek upstream.

There, he and other biologist volunteers would gently unload hundreds of native fish from barrels hooked by 100-foot lines to the helicopter.

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A biologist extracts native fish stored in a hoop net. The fish were placed in a bucket; the bucket was emptied into a 55-gallon container, and the container was airlifted to a larger, aerated container near the Irving Power plant.

The fish --hich included the speckled dace, chub and sucker -- had been taken from Fossil Creek two weeks earlier in a joint effort of the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the Red Rock Fly Casters Club. Following the removal, the fish were stored in tanks on the banks of the creek near the Irving power plant.

During the time the fish were there, a short-lived chemical was released into the stream to kill the non-native fish.

U.S. Wildlife Service Biologist Shaula Hedwall estimated about 1,200 native fish were removed and returned into the upper reaches of Fossil Creek.

The helicopter, which airlifted the fish, had time to make trips to three locations on the stream where biologists were waiting to return them to their home waters.

Later this month, the entire process of removing and returning the native fish will be repeated on lower Fossil Creek.

Power plants to close

The reintroduction of the fish into the stream is part of the decommissioning of the Childs and Irving power plants that have operated for almost 100 years. The flume and the plants were originally built by The Arizona Power Company (TAPCO) to power the mining industries in Jerome and Prescott.

In the plants' early years, they were considered engineering marvels, and in the 1920s supplied some power to Phoenix.

In recent years, they have generated less than one-fourth of one percent of the power Arizona Public Service produces.

In the late 1990s, the two plants also became the focus of environmentalists, who lobbied the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission not to relicense them.

Environmentalists argued the stream should be returned to its original form because riparian areas, like Fossil Creek, are almost non-existent in Arizona.

Years ago, APS officials agreed to close both Childs and Irving. Both were originally slated to be shut down Jan. 1, 2005. That date has been moved back to this spring to allow more time for the reclamation project.

Once they are shut down, full flows of about 410 gallons per second will return to Fossil Creek's original travertine streambed. Travertine is dense, but porous rock made of of calcite and aragonite.

Biologists anticipate that returning spring-water flows to the stream's original contour will create a unique travertine habitat of dams and pools that will extend over a 10 kilometer stretch.

With the power plants inoperative, wildlife officials expect native fish numbers, which had dwindled due to competition from exotic species and decreased flows, to be on the upswing.

To ensure the project's success, the game and fish department has proposed a 2005 regulation that could close Fossil Creek to fishing for about two years.

According to AGF Fisheries Branch Chief Larry Riley, the closure is needed to allow fish populations to reproduce and restore themselves. At the conclusion of the proposed ban, game officials predict Fossil Springs could become one of the most productive fishing spots in the nation.

The game department, however, is not the only ones with an interest in Fossil Springs.

The Coconino National Forest is putting together a management plan in anticipation that the area will soon attract more recreational interest among hikers and campers.

Northern Arizona University scientists will be watching to learn whether the restoration will promote travertine and how it will affect the stream's ecology.

In 1996, when APS temporarily returned full flows of water to perform maintenance on the plants, NAU researchers noticed that within one month, almost 12 inches of traventine were deposited in some stream location.

Natural dams, formed by travertine, make excellent fish habitat and keep exotic fish from swimming upstream to eat native fish.

According to Arizona Game and Fish Officer Rory Aikens, who participated in both the removal and return of the native fish to the stream, the entire project has represented a rare cooperation between environmentalists, Arizona's largest utility and the state and federal government.

"That kind of cooperation doesn't happen that often," he said. "It shows almost everyone knows how important this is."

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