8114511 - field on fire, burning dry grass

With Arizona locked in an epic drought, Salt River Project is launching an effort to prevent its watersheds from going up in smoke.

The utility, which delivers water and electricity to vast swaths of the East Valley, does not expect the program to be an overnight success. Indeed, the timetable stretches 15 years into the future.

But SRP sees the program as essential to preserving the region’s water supply over time.

The focus is on asking SRP customers to contribute $3 a month or more when they pay their electric bills. The money will be earmarked for forest-thinning projects in northern and eastern Arizona, with SRP donating up to $200,000 a year in matching funds.

SRP hopes to thin up to 50,000 acres of forest per year, eventually covering a half-million acres by 2035.

That should be enough, the utility believes, to mitigate some of the most disastrous effects of the wildfires that have been tearing through Arizona with frightening regularity for the past 30-plus years.

Elvy Barton, who oversees forest management for SRP, said customers already have been donating to assist the utility’s reforestation efforts in some of Arizona’s burn scars.

“We are now transitioning into more of a focus on strategic forest thinning projects that reduce wildfire risk,” she said. “Our focus with this new program really is just to not have these large, devastating wildfires across our watershed.”

Of those, there have been plenty in recent years. This year’s Bush Fire, which began northeast of Mesa and covered some 193,000 acres, was the fifth-largest in state history. The four larger ones all have occurred since 2002.

The immediate impacts are obvious: Scorched earth, imperiled communities, lives in danger.

But, Barton said, the fires also threaten the quality of the water that SRP delivers to the thirsty East Valley through watersheds along the Salt and Verde rivers.

“The reliability and sustainability of the water supply … comes from these forested watersheds,” she said.

Even a blaze such as the Bush Fire, which burned mostly desert, can affect water quality, she said.

“If there’s a high-severity burn on those acres, a lot of that material – the ash, the debris and the dirt – following precipitation still flows into the streams and rivers, eventually making its way into the SRP reservoirs,” she said. “If those flows are below the reservoirs, they will actually go straight into our delivery system.”

Thinning forests is a vital fire-fighting strategy, and it wasn’t necessary until European settlers began altering the landscape.

Left to itself, a healthy forest will have an occasional cleansing fire that clears away debris and creates enough space between trees for them to thrive.

But fire-suppression efforts led to overgrowth and massive accumulations of fuel that feed explosive wildfires. Since 2000, according to SRP, 2.9 million acres have burned in and near its watersheds.

In one portion of SRP’s watershed, a natural forest population of about 100 trees per acre has been overrun by some 6,000 trees per acre.

SRP does not aim to do all the actual thinning work itself. Its partners include federal and state agencies, environmental groups and the White Mountain Apache Tribe.

The long-term project begins with Arizona experiencing all the factors that could lead to yet another disastrous wildfire season. 

This past monsoon season was the driest in state history, and in many areas the hottest. A warm, dry winter also is likely, according to the National Weather Service.

“Together we really believe we can make an impact in reducing these large wildfires and protecting communities, water supplies and air quality across Arizona,” Barton said.

SRP customers who wish to contribute to the tree-thinning effort may enroll at srpnet.com/healthyforest

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