The large wildfires these past 10 years that ravaged the watershed in and around the Salt and Verde rivers, where our water comes from, indicate one important fact that must be addressed now more than ever — our forests are unhealthy.
SRP manages the water supply for much of the Valley — most of which comes from 8.3 million acres of land in northern Arizona. Snowfall and rain provide the water that travels through the watershed into SRP reservoirs, which is then delivered to homes and businesses via canals and laterals.
But these beautiful forested lands that harness this precious resource have been hit by devastating wildfires and are primed for more infernos like those impacting California and Colorado. On average, the forested lands in the northern part of the state have about 100 trees per acre, but in many areas, there are thousands of trees per acre. Overcrowded forests can fuel large wildfires that are uncontrollable with catastrophic impacts.
These wildfires not only devastate natural ecosystems, they also degrade water quality and impact the resiliency of the water supply. After a wildfire, rainfall washes sediment, ash and debris into rivers and reservoirs. The large amounts of sediment that washes into SRP’s reservoirs prematurely reduces our water storage capacity and damages our water infrastructure. This is a huge concern considering that we live in a desert environment where long-term storage capacity and resiliency to drought are crucial.
Strategic thinning of our overgrown forests to a more natural condition is a necessary part of proper forest management and SRP has committed to goals aimed at increasing forest restoration through partnerships, education and support for industry to thin 50,000 acres per year or 500,000 acres by 2035.
We know that having a sustainable and thriving forest product industry is critical to restoring our national forest lands in Arizona. To achieve meaningful progress on forest restoration efforts, expanding existing industry capacity, and attracting new forest product companies will be critical. Expansion in those areas have the added benefit of providing more rural jobs, increasing investment in infrastructure and equipment, and helping to drive rural economic development opportunities.
SRP has partnered with the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the state of Arizona to develop and issue a request for proposals (RFP) for forest thinning work on 605,000 to 818,000 acres across northern and central Arizona for the next 20 years. This project is poised to stimulate sustainable investment in the forest products industry and drive long-term industry success.
SRP has also been working on the Cragin Watershed Protection Project (CWPP), which allows the U.S. Forest Service to move forward immediately with prescribed burns and forest thinning across the Cragin watershed to reduce the fuel loading of a severely overgrown forest. SRP is actively coordinating with partners to accelerate strategic thinning implementation on several thousand acres within the CWPP. SRP is leveraging new partnerships, funding, and innovation to tackle project and financial barriers.
SRP recently introduced a new program that allows residential customers to invest $3 a month toward strategic forest thinning projects to help reduce the risk and devastating impacts of catastrophic wildfire and protect the health of the watersheds that provide water to the Valley. Residential customers can now sign up for the Healthy Forest Initiative at srpnet.com/healthyforest to partner with SRP on this extremely important initiative.
Reforestation of areas that have been devastated by wildfire is an important part of restoring our forest, but our goal today is to prevent the devastating impacts from wildfires by strategically removing small trees that will allow for healthier trees to thrive. Preventative strategic thinning will not only improve the health of our forests and watersheds but also reduce the need to reforest large sections of our forests.
SRP is also committed to data- and science-based forest restoration efforts. That’s why we have invested in numerous research projects, together with academic institutions, nonprofits and private industry organizations, to understand the short-term and long-term effects of forest restoration. SRP has invested in innovative and proprietary LiDAR and field instrumentation, known as Flowtography, that provides real-time visual watershed condition and forest data. These leading-edge efforts provide a wealth of knowledge and tools to implement strategic thinning projects, evaluate the ecological benefits, and understand the effects of climate change.
We can learn a lot from the wildfires that have ravaged across our state, but we must act on those lessons and we must act now. With support from partners, forest product industry, our customers and researchers, we are building the tools to reach our forest health goal.
Elvy Barton is a forest health management principal and leads SRP’s forest restoration partnerships, programs and policy analysis initiatives. Barton is also an assistant professor with Northern Arizona University’s School of Public Administration and Justice Studies, where she teaches public sector communications.