Arizona wildfires, forests and a reliable future: a Q&A with a policy expert

A healthy forest, photo provided by Andy Cuevas.

Arizona wildfires like the Woodbury Fire bring wildfire prevention to the forefront of our customer’s minds, but the truth is here at SRP it’s always a priority for us.

Preventing Arizona wildfires and beyond

We have all heard the saying “you can’t see the forest for the trees.”  This is particularly true when we discuss landscape-scale forest restoration and the different types of treatments that are desperately needed. 

Yet it is ironic that it isn’t the forests but the trees we talk about when it comes to restoring our forests. Each treatment type is designed to provide added mitigation against wildfire and flooding risks through efforts such as:

  • Strategic Forest Thinning
  • Prescribed and Managed Burns

This is no small feat.  In Central and Northern Arizona, over 1.1 million acres of predominantly ponderosa pine-forested lands require strategic forest thinning treatment.  These efforts require collaboration, investment and partnerships from a wide variety of government agencies, and non-governmental and private organizations.  

To learn more about these activities—and even how you can help—we talked to SRP Senior Water Policy Analyst Elvy Barton. Elvy is fighting to protect Arizona’s forests and recently collaborated with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and other Partners to help restore our overgrown forests.

An unhealthy forest, prior to being thinned. Photo provided by Andy Cuevas.

How restoring forests prevents Arizona wildfires – Q&A with SRP senior water policy analyst Elvy Barton

SRP-employee-Elvy Barton headshot
Elvy Barton

Why are Arizona’s forests unhealthy?

Just because a forest has thousands of trees, doesn’t mean it is healthy.

Since the catastrophic wildfires of the early 1900’s, the USFS policy on fire management was to suppress any fire that started, regardless if it naturally occurred or was manmade. That policy, and the lack of timber harvesting in the 1980’s and ’90s, left forests to become overgrown and dense with trees and brush. It’s estimated that 80% of Arizona’s forests are currently overgrown and unhealthy.

Why is an unhealthy forest a fire risk?

It’s important to note that fire is a natural part of a healthy ecosystem and provides multiple benefits to our forests. Unfortunately, overgrown and unhealthy forests provide tons of fuel for large, high-severity wildfires that damage our forested ecosystems and watersheds.  Arizona has experienced six mega-fires (>100,000 acres) in the last 18 years. Five of which have been on the Salt and Verde River watersheds.

What do forest fires have to do with water supply?

Since 2002, the Salt and Verde River watersheds have experienced nearly a ten-fold increase in wildfires. When the vegetation and soils in these watersheds are destroyed by fire, there’s nothing left to absorb or hold back precipitation.

This makes average rain and snowfall extremely destructive—eroding soils and carrying debris and sediment into SRP’s water storage reservoirs like Lake Roosevelt. As the water flows downstream, ash and soil accumulate, making the water harder to filter. This raises water treatment costs and, over time, reduces the amount of water we can store in our reservoirs.

How does forest thinning help to prevent Arizona wildfires?

Strategic forest thinning clears out small- and medium-sized trees that provide fuel for large, high-severity, destructive fires. For years, the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) has been working towards a forest thinning goal. The 4FRI area includes over 2.4 million acres of which over 1.1 million acres need strategic forest thinning. However, the Initiative has not been able to reach its thinning goal of 50,000 acres per year.

In order to reach the 4FRI goal, SRP knew that we needed to help expand existing and attract new forest product industry to Arizona. In 2018 and 2019, we worked with the USFS and partners to develop a large-scale thinning Request for Proposals (RFP).

Last month, the USFS published the RFP on the Federal Business Opportunities website. This innovative RFP could provide longer, 20-year contracts that offer increased financial certainty for the forest product industry. Additionally, up to 818,000 acres from four national forests, stretching from the Grand Canyon to Eastern Arizona, will be available for industry.

Will this project benefit more than our forests?

Yes! This initiative is intended to support the existing industry and attract new sustainable industry to increase the pace and scale of strategic forest thinning while creating jobs, restoring forests, and protecting communities and downstream water supplies.

How can customers help?

Wondering how you can help? Customers can partner with SRP to restore Arizona forests. Visit srpnet.com/water to find out how you can be involved in restoring our forests and protecting our priceless watersheds.

Tiffany Bolton

Tiffany Bolton

Tiffany is a lifelong learner, water nerd and mom. An Arizona transplant, she loves calling the Valley home, even though she kills a garden full of plants each year. When not writing about SRP, she enjoys reading one book each week and driving her minivan.

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