Natalie Robb has spent the last three years sloshing up and down Tonto Creek, trying to figure out how to turn a flood-battered stream into a little piece of heaven for the finny set.
And starting this week, she’ll start building that heaven — one deep, cool, burbly pool at a time.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department habitat specialist is heading up a $175,000 effort to use boulders and logs to create about 75 pools in the tumbling meanders of Tonto Creek between Highway 260 and the hatchery.
The project, funded with money from hunting and fishing licenses, will help restore a creek wildly popular with anglers to its condition before a series of fires and floods scoured it out and destroyed many of the natural pools.
“It’s awesome,” said Robb of the chance to finally begin creating the pools, riffles and eddies she’s been dreaming about for years. She has jumped, splashed and wobbled along every foot of the five-mile stretch of spring-fed creek, usually with a hydrologist or a stream engineer in tow.
Cranes, backhoes, dozers and a team of shovel-wielding workers will spend the next three weeks building 40 or 50 barriers in the stream and planting willows along the bank, all designed to create the kinds of deep, cool, still pools that trout crave.
“I’ve been working on this project for three years — to see it on the ground actually happening is very cool,” said Robb.
Moreover, the project managers have also landed another $100,000 to plan a similar renovation along five miles of Canyon Creek, 1.5 miles of Christopher Creek and 3.5 miles of Haigler Creek.
If the environmental studies of that project go as planned and project backers can get another $100,000 in construction money, those three tributary creeks could get a makeover in three or four years.
After that, the focus will likely shift to making changes in the East Verde River, which the release of water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir will likely change into another trout haven.
Taken together, the projects will make Rim Country one of the top trout fishing areas in the state, with less water perhaps than White Mountain gushers like the Black River, but with far better access to the state’s population centers.
The renovation of those already popular streams stocked every week all summer from the Game and Fish hatchery at the head of Tonto Creek will shore up one of Rim Country’s key lures for tourists.
Tonto Creek has been battered by bottom-scouring floods ever since the Dude Fire in 1990 denuded portions of the watershed. Major storms after that fire rushed off barren slopes and sent a wall of water crashing down Tonto Creek, blasting away the deep pools that once dominated the flow of the creek.
The resulting transformation of the stream bed made life hard for trout — cunning, ambush predators who normally hide behind rocks and logs and beneath the overhanging banks of deeper ponds, waiting for the stream to bring them the tiny invertebrates and smaller fish they crave.
The Game and Fish stocking truck all summer long dumps thousands of hatchery-raised trout in about 15 spots with beleaguered pools close to the road, but wiley fishermen usually fish out those pools within a couple of days — leaving the stream bereft until the next week’s stocking run.
The gleaming addition of new pools will give the fish somewhere to hide and let them spread out more along the stream. Currently, they’re often largely trapped in the pools in which they’re stocked by the shallow, warm stretches between the pools.
“Picture a huge wall of water coming down the creek” after the floods, said Robb. “It just scoured it out — taking all the cobbles and all the stuff the fish really need. What we’re doing is repairing it and giving Mother Nature a place to start.”
For instance, creating the chain of pools will slow the water down, allowing it to drop its sediment and soak into the water table. That should foster faster growth of streamside vegetation, especially in the stretches where the work crews will plant willows to stabilize the banks. As the vegetation recovers, it will further slow the water and capture sediment — creating a happy cycle of recovery, said Robb.
The change in the stream dynamics and vegetation will not only benefit the trout, but should provide more food and shelter for some struggling native species — like the trout-sized roundtail chub, the Chiricahua Leopard Frog and many bird species.
The crews will use only natural materials to slow and create pools, including clusters of large boulders and chained-together logs. Engineers specializing in stream design took Robb’s suggestions plotted with GPS positions and then used computer models to design the log and rock structures necessary.
Whenever possible, they created a new pool after shallow, turbulent riffles, where the water runs over rocks and cobbles. Such riffles provide a home for a host of small invertebrates and insect larvae, which are often washed down into the pools where the hungry trout await.
Moreover, the turbulence of the riffles mixes oxygen into the water, which also flows down into the pools — which might otherwise become oxygen-starved when the summer heats up.
The stream design extends to positioning rocks and logs where the swift water enters the pools to create nice eddies, lazy circular flows where the trout can hover without wasting any energy as they wait for the stream to deliver dinner.
“They basically need a place to hide and to loaf, where they don’t have to use a lot of energy and the water’s the right temperature,” she said.
Robb and her crew — including Tonto National Forest managers, had all the studies and designs ready to go, hoping to eventually get money from Game and Fish’s conservation fund.
“I was shocked to get the funding this year,” said Robb.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service and Game and Fish are gathering comments on the plan to renovate Canyon, Christopher and Haigler creeks — with much of the work centered on the handful of campgrounds and areas with easy access.
Those comments will lay the groundwork for an environmental study that will shape the designs for the creation of fish-friendly pools in those streams as well.