Arizona’s forests are in poor health. They’re overgrown, and without action, catastrophic fires are almost a certainty — putting the state’s physical beauty, economic vitality and water supplies at risk.

That’s why a team made up of representatives from Salt River Project, the U.S. Forest Service, the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University, The Nature Conservancy and the University of Arizona has been working for the past year to find solutions.

This group is bringing together wide-ranging public, private and nonprofit interests with a stake in forest health and seeking innovative funding opportunities to fix the problem. And the team is starting to develop momentum, most recently during a May workshop in Tempe hosted by SRP featuring a capacity crowd of those involved or interested in regional forest health issues.

“Being here today gives me a lot of optimism,” said Cal Joyner, Southwest District regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service, during the workshop’s keynote address. “Arizona is one of the leaders in the West in addressing these issues.”

SRP, Joyner added, deserved a lot of credit for helping to move that work forward. To understand why SRP is so involved, it’s first important to understand why forest health matters to greater Phoenix as a whole.

Forests in northern Arizona are the lifeblood of SRP’s water supply. The runoff from rain and snow that fall on those forests flows downstream, filling reservoirs on the Salt and Verde rivers.

When those forests are healthy, winter snowpack provides a reliable water source for the ecosystem and for downstream communities, including the East Valley. Healthy forests also filter runoff so that water flowing into reservoirs is clean and relatively free of sediment.

Scorched forests do the opposite. Runoff from fire-scarred areas not only drains into SRP’s reservoirs, it also brings ash and debris. This waste settles at the base of the dams, reducing reservoir capacity and affecting water quality.

Since 2002, more than a quarter of SRP’s watershed has been burned by megafires such as the Rodeo-Chediski and Wallow fires.

The solution is to remove the excess small-diameter trees and brush that overcrowd modern forests — thereby reducing the fuel load and decreasing the possibility of “crown fires” that are so catastrophic to Arizona’s forests. Historically, small fires were a vital and natural part of the ecosystem in Arizona’s forests, removing excess vegetation and improving soil conditions. However, the overgrowth of small-diameter trees now acts as ladders for fire-enabling flames to reach the top of older trees, and can spread quickly, destroying entire forest landscapes.

“We all have a stake at improving the condition of our forests,” said Rebecca Davidson, a senior analyst in SRP’s Water Rights & Contracts group. “And whatever the reason — whether to create climate resiliency, to ensure opportunities for recreation, to improve hydrologic function and protect water resources, or to address wildland urban interface within local communities — it is important that we work collaboratively to develop partnerships and find solutions.”

The first efforts to address the issue on a widespread scale began with the signing of a 2011 agreement that launched the Four Forest Restoration Initiative — a U.S. Forest Service-endorsed plan to thin 50,000 acres of forest annually for 20 years across the Tonto, Coconino, Apache-Sitgreaves and Kaibab national forests.

But thinning work has been slow to take root, and the problem isn’t contained to those four national forests. Private, state, tribal and Bureau of Land Management lands are also affected.

To seek speedier and more widespread solutions, SRP joined forces with other stakeholders to put together a team with a wide range of experience and connections in forest health issues. The group has convened weekly for more than a year to develop a strategy to get all parties with an interest in forest health working together. Their efforts culminated at the recent workshop attended by 116 influential individuals, ranging from key policy writers in Congress and the Arizona Legislature, to private companies involved in thinning, to environmental and university leaders dedicated to forest health.

At the workshop, attendees discussed the full scope of the problem: The current pace and scale of forest and woodland restoration in Arizona is insufficient to prevent the large and severe fires we are experiencing today. And although contracts have been issued by the Forest Service to begin clearing in limited locations, they don’t necessarily exist in places where the infrastructure actually exits — think logging equipment and mills. This makes it difficult for forest industry companies to find economically viable mechanisms to enable access to those cleared areas.

The workshop also provided attendees the opportunity to discuss regional forest and woodland interests throughout the state. Regional breakout groups were tasked with identifying potential funding sources and willing leaders to accelerate partnership and funding efforts in northern Arizona, Prescott and southeastern Arizona.

Among the funding sources the groups agreed to explore: water user fees, bonding efforts, the sale of biomass fuels created from felled timber, tourism-based taxes and capital funding campaigns.

The core working group will continue to coordinate and track geographic regional efforts, and work toward the development of a public outreach campaign aimed at making Arizonans aware of the threat wildfires have on their water supply.

SRP has also begun to develop a partnership with the Forest Service and other key stakeholders to accelerate forest restoration around C.C. Cragin Reservoir, a reservoir on the Mogollon Rim surrounded by dense forest and an important municipal water supply for the town of Payson and other Rim communities.

“Each summer that passes without aggressive and active thinning of our forests only increases the probability of another wildfire and further damage to SRP’s watersheds and our customers’ and shareholders’ water supply,” said Bruce Hallin, SRP’s director of Water Rights & Contracts.

SRP is planning a conference in October as a follow-up to the workshop, where progress will be reported and next-level goals set. Optimism among those involved is high.

“I really believe that 10 or 20 years from now, we will look back at the work we accomplished here and have something to be really proud of,” said Charlie Ester, SRP’s manager of Water Resource Operations Services. “We’re creating a legacy for Arizona.”

• Ed Baker is a senior online communications strategist at SRP.

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