Protecting AZ’s Surface Water & Maintaining Healthy Forests Are, Basically, The Same Thing

CC Cragin Reservoir

The most visually stunning image of the C.C. Cragin Reservoir nestled within the deep canyons of the Mogollon Plateau uplands is that of the dense forests surrounding the picturesque man-made lake.

For the people charged with maintaining the reservoir – now a vital source of water for the city of Payson – the handsome forests are not a pretty sight.

“The threat of wildfire to our forests is real,” said Stephen Flora, a senior hydrologist for the Salt River Project during one of the “Water 101” series of presentations sponsored by the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

SRP manages the C.C. Cragin Reservoir on behalf of Paysonand other Rim communities that expect to rely on the 15,000-acre-foot facility. As recently as May 2018, the “Tinder Fire” burned more than 12,000 woodland acres near the reservoir.

“The area around the C.C. Cragin Reservoir is very overstocked,” said Flora. “The highly dense forest in that area is at very high risk for fire. And that could have a significant effect on our watershed.”

The two phenomenon – forested Arizona mountain watersheds and the mostly winter runoff that provides much of central Arizona’s water supplies – are intrinsically linked.

SRP is a primary water provider for much of central Arizona. As Flora illustrated with his presentation, the majority of SRP’s watershed is covered in dense forest land, which in the course of the lengthy Southwestern drought has become increasingly susceptible to destructive, crown-topping wildfires. Two mega-fires alone – the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire and the 2011 Wallow Fire – consumed nearly 1 million acres of mostly Ponderosa pine forestland.

“The flooding that follows after those wildfires degrades water quality,” explained Flora. “There is significant loss of capacity in reservoirs, which means there is less available water storage.”

Flora noted two big efforts now under way to mitigate the potential for wildfire in critical areas of the eastern mountains of Arizona.

Both efforts involve thinning dense forestland such as that surrounding the C.C. Cragin Reservoir to so-called “pre-Columbian” densities. Forests that prior to the 19th century may have had as few as 30 to 50 pine trees per acre today often have up to 1,000 trees per acre. That tree density saps the moisture from the soil and leaves the dense stands of trees more vulnerable to wildfire.

One of those efforts that Flora described is the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, or “4FRI,” an ambitious forest-restoration project that includes forested lands in the Kaibab, Coconino, Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto national forests.

Including 2.4 million acres overall, 4FRI is considered one of the biggest forest restoration projects ever undertaken in the United States.. While it enjoys wide support, 4FRI has been hampered over the years by technical, environmental and economic challenges.

“Treatment (of the forest) has been very slow,” said Flora.

The other major effort is focused in the 64,000 woodland acres surrounding the C.C. Cragin Reservoir.

The Forest Service announced in September its plans to take action to protect the Payson water supplies with a thinning project anticipated to take five years or more.

“We have a need for larger efforts to reduce the risk of fire,” said Flora.

Arizona Governor’s chief of staff makes surprise appearance at Colorado River water conference


Ducey administration chief of staff Kirk Adams at a dinner on Wednesday hosted by Salt River Project. From Left: Hunter Moore, the Natural Resources Policy Adviser to Governor Ducey; Peter Hayes, associate SRP GM and chief public affairs executive; Mark Bonsall, general manager and CEO of SRP; Adams; David Rousseau, SRP President; Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke

Ducey chief of staff Kirk Adams attended the Colorado River Water Users Association meetings this week in Las Vegas.

Adams told the attendees with whom he met that Governor Ducey is committed to prioritizing a plan that will provide Arizona with a sustainable water future.

“We’re moving full-steam ahead with a broad coalition of stakeholders,” Adams said.

Adams addressed a theme that has become a central focus of the annual three-day CRWUA this year: pushing the long-debated Drought Contingency Plan agreement among Colorado River water users across the finish line.

At a keynote panel discussion involving top water executives organized the next day, all five panelists — including Arizona Water Resources Department Director Tom Buschatzke — emphasized the urgency of completing the multi-state agreement to protect Lake Mead.

“Not to be overly dramatic, but I believe that DCP is fundamental to the survival of how we do business,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

Arizona Water Resources Director Buschatzke returned to the DCP theme during nearly all of his speaking engagements at the conference.

“I’ve said it before, we need all hands on deck” to complete Lake Mead-saving water agreements, including both those hands inside Arizona and outside the state.

Chief of Staff Adams met on Wednesday with members.

“I’m gratified we could arrange this,” he said. “Water security is vital to Arizona’s future and it was important, I think, to assure the Colorado River community that Governor Ducey is committed to doing what we need to do to make it all happen.”

Kirk Adams and Mark Bonsal

SRP’s Mark Bonsall with Ducey Chief of Staff Kirk Adams at an event sponsored by SRP at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference in Las Vegas





Groundwater documentary and discussion in downtown Prescott on Wednesday

Kathy Ferris

Groundwater expert and documentarian Kathleen Ferris, discussing her film on the creation of the 1980 Groundwater Management Act

It is always helpful to have a solid appreciation for the past before making big decisions about the future. Especially when the subject is water.

Prescott and surrounding northern Arizona communities are hard at work right now attempting to accurately analyze their water future. In March, the high country community, along with Salt River Project, agreed to conduct a refined groundwater-flow model for the Big Chino Sub-basin, which Prescott anticipates will be an important future water supply. The plan is to accurately assess the hydrogeologic connection of the Big Chino aquifer with the Upper Verde River.

The analysis is expected to be completed in 2020.

On Wednesday, meanwhile, the producers of a much-acclaimed documentary on the history of Arizona’s landmark groundwater-protection act — the Groundwater Management Act of 1980 — have scheduled a viewing of their film in downtown Prescott this week.

Kathleen Ferris, Senior Research Fellow at the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, and her movie-making partner, film producer Michael Schiffer, will host the presentation at the Elks Theater at 117 E. Gurley Street in Prescott on Wednesday evening.

Immediately following the 26-minute viewing, Ferris will host a panel discussion on the present-day issues facing Arizona’s water supply — including a discussion of what steps, if any, the Arizona Legislature ought to take to update the 37-year-old Groundwater Code.

The six-person panel will include Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Joining Buschatzke will be Greg Kornrumph of SRP, Sarah Porter of the Kyl Center, Yavapai County Supervisor Thomas Thurman, town of Clarkdale Mayor Doug Von Gausig, as well as Schiffer.

Doors open at 6 p.m. More information is available online at