Lawmakers Work To Protect Fossil Creek

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The final step in returning one of the Rim Country's natural wonders to its beauty of 100 years ago now rests with the U.S. Congress.

If lawmakers pass a bill introduced July 28 by Senator John McCain and Representative Rick Renzi, Fossil Creek, located northwest of Payson, would be added to the 2,061 miles of rivers in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

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Fossil Creek

As a part of that system, the creek would be protected in its free flowing condition from the construction of dams or development.

To be included in the NWSRS, Congress must pass McCain and Renzi's bill, which would designate Fossil Creek, a "wild river."

The Bureau of Land Management defines wild rivers as "free of impoundments, generally inaccessible except by trail, and has exceptionally clean waters."

McCain is convinced Fossil Creek fits the definition of a wild river.

"It is a thing of beauty with its picturesque scenery, lush riparian ecosystem, unique geological features and deep blue pools and waterfalls," he said. "Fossil Creek is a unique Arizona treasure, and would benefit greatly from the protection and recognition offered through Wild and Scenic designation."

Renzi said he is excited to join McCain in sponsoring the legislation because, if passed, it would protect one of Arizona's most precious natural jewels for generations to come.

Currently, Arizona's only designated Wild and Scenic River is a stretch of the Verde River of which Fossil Creek is a tributary.

Thus far, McCain's and Renzi's bill has received bipartisan support from the entire Arizona congressional delegation.

How they got here

The first steps in returning Fossil Creek to its original state began in the late 1990s when two power plants on the creek, Childs and Irving, became the focus of environmentalists, who lobbied the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission not to re-license them.

Environmentalists argued the plants needed to be closed so the creek could be returned to its original form. They also argued riparian areas, like Fossil Creek, are almost nonexistent in Arizona.

Arizona Public Service officials agreed years later to close both Childs and Irving. Both were originally to be shut down Jan. 1, 2005 but that date was moved to June to allow more time for the reclamation project.

Once the two power plants were shut down, full flows of about 410 gallons per second returned to Fossil Creek's original travertine streambed.

Travertine is dense, but porous rock made 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.

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

In October 2004, native fish were taken from the creek and stored for two weeks in man-made ponds. Following the native fish's removal, a short-lived chemical (Antimycin) was added to stretches of the stream to remove any non-native or exotic fish in the creek.

Arizona Game and Fish biologists then used helicopters and 55-gallon drums to return native fish to Fossil Creek.

The fish were lowered in the drums on a long steel cable attached to the helicopter," AGF officer Rory Aikens said.

The fish were then taken out of the container by biologists, by hand, and placed back in the creek.

Aikens said, thus far the project to return native fish to Fossil Creek has been a success. McCain and Renzi's effort to protect and restore Fossil Creek and its springs has drawn praise from Jason Williams of the Arizona Wilderness Coalition.

"Senator McCain and Congressman Renzi's staff took valuable time to visit Fossil Creek and worked diligently to safeguard this amazing place," he said. "Ultimately, it's the sheer beauty and intrinsic value of Fossil Creek that inspired them to act on its behalf."

-- To reach Max Foster call 474-5251 ext. 114 or e-mail mfoster@payson.com.

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