Undaunted by years of frustrating delay, Payson continues to push for a plan to save its long-term water supply by prodding the Forest Service to thin the watershed of the C.C. Cragin Reservoir.

Payson Mayor Tom Morrissey last week hosted a Zoom meeting that pulled together top forest restoration and watershed officials statewide in an effort to jump-start the long-stalled effort to thin the 64,000-acre watershed.

The meeting focused on efforts to this summer launch two thinning projects totaling some 4,500 acres — after years of study, discussion and delay. The meeting also resulted in a plan to revive a formal partnership with key agencies to raise money for the effort to thin the watershed from about 1,000 trees per acre to more like 100 or 200 trees per acre.

“These meetings are extremely valuable,” said Morrissey. The meeting included representatives of Salt River Project, the National Turkey Federation, the Arizona State Forester’s Office, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Forest Service, the Four Forest Restoration Initiative and others.

“It’s very important that we maintain this dialogue and maintain this connection,” he said.

Years of meetings and discussion have produced only meager results on the ground on a watershed vulnerable to a devastating crown fire. Such megafires on other watersheds followed by heavy rainfall have caused debris flows that could fill the 15,000-acre-foot reservoir with mud and debris.

Payson has invested more than $50 million in a pipeline that delivers 3,000 acre-feet of water annually — more than doubling the town’s water supply. The reservoir also provides about 11,000 acre-feet annually. SRP pumps water out of the reservoir and puts it in the East Verde River, which flows down to the Verde River and a chain of SRP reservoirs in the Valley.

Payson and SRP fear a fire on the watershed now would cause the kinds of mud flows that nearly filled a Denver reservoir in Colorado after a megafire. Denver spent millions dredging the reservoir, but Payson and SRP probably couldn’t afford to restore C.C. Cragin if the watershed burns.

Coconino Forest District Ranger Linda Wadleigh said we’re facing even worse conditions than in 2018, when a lightning caused fire just below the reservoir roared up out of the canyon and consumed 35 homes near Happy Jack.

Payson, SRP and the Forest Service have been talking about thinning the water shed for years. Payson back in 2014 entered a memorandum of understanding with the federal government, SRP and the National Forest Foundation to thin the watershed. It still took four years to complete an environmental assessment that would allow the thinning project to move forward. However, when the Forest Service sought bidders on a restoration project for the 3,500-acre General Springs project, no one responded. The loggers couldn’t see a way to make money on the project because they had no way to get rid of the small trees and biomass that constituted half the material they had to remove.

Last week, the impressive list of participants in the Zoom meeting all insisted the project’s making progress and underscored their commitment to saving the watershed. However, the only concrete agreement that came out of the meeting was support for drafting a new memorandum of understanding to replace the one that lapsed in 2019 with little to show for the good intentions.

Now the National Turkey Federation is managing the project and is seeking a new round of bids. Patt Dorsey, with the Federation, said she hopes to have a pre-bid meeting with potential contractors for the 3,500-acre General Springs sale.

“After that happens, we’ll work to finalize the package. We’ll review the bids and select a bidder. We’ll give ourselves 30 days to go from a bid to a contract — and after that, the work would begin,” she said.

“The sooner the better,” interjected Bruce Hallerin, who is with Salt River Project.

The region’s facing an especially dangerous fire season, with bone-dry timber and the reservoir holding only 29% of its capacity at the end of the peak spring runoff period.

Awarding the contracts within 30 days would set some sort of land speed record. The Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) received bids for contracts to thin nearly a million acres of forest in Rim Country and the White Mountains a year ago, but has still not awarded contracts. 4FRI Chief Executive Officer Jeremy Kruger participated in the meeting and expressed his support, but offered no estimate as to when the Forest Service will actually award 20-year contracts to thin that much larger area.

Still, the group expressed optimism about finally moving the crucial C.C. Cragin restoration effort forward.

The state this year has set aside some $24 million for forest thinning projects statewide and set a goal of thinning 15,000 acres annually. That’s just a twig on the tree in the face of the roughly 6 million, mostly overgrown forested acres in the state — but it represents a new level of state commitment.

Moreover, the disastrous wildfires in California and across the Southwest have attracted renewed federal attention. Forest Service costs for fighting fires have risen to perhaps $3 billion annually, which amounts to about 60% of the total budget – leaving little money for restoration projects to prevent those fires.

Representatives from Rep. Paul Gosar and Senator Kyrsten Sinema sat in on the meeting and both pledged to support any grant applications project backers write seeking federal money.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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