Diverting, storing, and delivering water is the main trade of a major water supplier like the Salt River Project (SRP). But to successfully carry out that mission, it must pay attention to a much wider landscape than that encompassed by its infrastructure and service area. All water comes from somewhere, and that means that SRP has a direct interest in the tracts of forest and wilderness land, much of which is federally owned, that its water flows through on the way to its reservoirs. One challenge is forest management. Without it, forests become unhealthy and overgrown and are susceptible to devastating wildfires that send ash and debris into SRP’s system.

In this interview, Elvy Barton, a senior water policy analyst at SRP, and Bruce Hallin, SRP’s director of water supply, tell Municipal Water Leader about SRP’s partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the State of Arizona and its Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI).

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Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your backgrounds and how you came to be in your current positions.

Elvy Barton: My career started in the Arizona House of Representatives, were I was a senior policy analyst for 10 years, working on natural resources, water, and environmental policy issues for the Democratic caucus. In 2015, I came over to SRP as a senior policy analyst for environmental issues and worked on a range of policies related to the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the Endangered Species Act. Last year, I came over to the water resources department, where I’ve been focusing on forest restoration issues and water supply policy.

Bruce Hallin: I’ve been at SRP for close to 30 years. I have a varied background in water supply planning, water resource management, water adjudication, water supply acquisition, business development, water resource development, and water strategy. Most recently, I have also been assisting in the area of forest restoration, forest health, and watershed health. In addition to that, I spent some time on the power side of the business doing power resource planning and corporate planning strategy development. I was also in charge of our land acquisitions group, so I did some real estate development on the power side of the business. Also, I do a lot of lobbying and legislative briefings. We also all work together on policy and policy development.

Arizona forest after thinning.

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about the watershed that provides water to SRP.

Elvy Barton: There are three watersheds that flow into SRP’s seven reservoirs: the Salt River watershed, the Verde River watershed, and the East Clear Creek watershed. They encompass about 8.3 million acres of land in northern, central, and eastern Arizona. Four of our reservoirs are filled by the Salt River; two by the Verde River; and one is filled from the East Clear Creek Watershed, which then flows into the Verde River.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, SRP lobbied Congress to set aside the lands above our water service territory in the Phoenix metropolitan area, mainly because our founders knew that those watersheds were important in providing a reliable, sustainable water supply to the valley. They succeeded in getting Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt to set aside the Tonto National Forest and the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, primarily to protect those lands and the water supply they provide.

Municipal Water Leader: What are the overall concerns related to watershed health?

Elvy Barton: One of our major concerns is that our watershed is overstocked with trees and brush. On average, an acre of land in our national forest land has about 100 trees per acre, but in some areas there are thousands per acre. When the trees grow at that density, they compete for resources and undergo more stresses, which makes them more susceptible to insects and disease and less tolerant to drought conditions. In addition, they provide so much fuel that wildfires can take hold and burn at high severity rates. Over the past 2 decades, we have seen a huge increase in the number of wildfires and in their severity. We’ve had five mega fires—fires over 100,000 acres in size—in our watersheds in the last 2 decades, which is not normal for this environment.

These wildfires not only devastate our natural resources, they degrade our water quality: When precipitation occurs after those fires, a lot of ash and debris is washed into rivers and reservoirs. They also put a lot of sediment into the SRP reservoirs, which reduces our ability to store water, which is a huge concern considering that we’re in a desert environment where long-term storage and resiliency to drought is crucial.

Bruce Hallin: The land in our watersheds is primarily owned by the federal government, whether it’s tribal land or national forest land. At this point, unfortunately, the practice of protecting the watershed has gone awry, and we’re actively pursuing partnerships with the Forest Service, the State of Arizona, and the Bureau of Reclamation to remedy that. SRP is a federal Reclamation project, so Reclamation is also interested in the health of the watershed. We have been working together to improve the health of those forests through major forest restoration initiatives.

Municipal Water Leader: What steps does SRP have to take when ash and debris end up in the water?

Bruce Hallin: SRP is a raw water provider. Historically, we primarily delivered water for agricultural purposes, but because of this area’s rapid urbanization, we now providewater to 10 municipal water treatment plants. Essentially, the poor-quality, ash- and debris-laden water that washes into our system following these fires is being treated by the cities. The cities have invested tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars to improve their ability to treat water that is heavily laden with organics, ash, metals, and other materials engendered by these catastrophic wildfires. We’ve even had situations in which the cities couldn’t even treat the water because it was so contaminated with ash. We ended up diverting the water away from our canal system and releasing it into a dry riverbed. In those cases, the fires were actually downstream of our reservoirs, so the poor-quality runoff had a direct effect on the diversions that we were making out of the Salt River.

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about 4FRI.

An unhealthy, overgrown forest with trees marked for removal.

Elvy Barton: In 2009, Congress established the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP), which is a program under the Forest Service that focuses on landscape-scale restoration projects. It pulls a bunch of stakeholders and interested parties together to work on forest restoration. 4FRI is the largest CFLRP project. It has been in place for about 10 years and has to be reauthorized every 10 years, a process it is going through right now. A significant number of stakeholders participate in it, including SRP, environmental groups, industries, academic institutions like Northern Arizona University, and the National Forests.

Municipal Water Leader: Were SRP and the Forest Service already working together on watershed issues before 4FRI was established?

Bruce Hallin: We were working together on partnership issues associated with a triparty agreement involving SRP, Reclamation, and, the Forest Service regarding issues associated with the management of our reservoirs. In addition to that, SRP has power infrastructure that crisscrosses Forest Service land, primarily major transmission lines, so we’re working on access to that infrastructure to ensure that we can get in and manage it. On the water side of the business, a lot of our work with the Forest Service dealt with getting permits to install, monitor, and measure preset flow on river, precipitation, and snow gauges, which allowed us to monitor the watershed and understand hydrologic conditions in order to estimate flow in the river systems and into our reservoirs.

Early in our history, maybe up until the early 1980s, we were a little bit more actively involved in the overall management of those forests. However, since that time, up until the most recent 7–8 years, we weren’t actively working with the Forest Service on the health of the watershed and the forests. We began working together again because it became apparent, like Elvy mentioned, that we were in a crisis situation in which our forests had become unhealthy and extremely overgrown. That occurred because of a mix of fire suppression and a lack of industry. There was a lack of proactive management.

Now we’re trying to change that. The only way we’re going to get this fixed is to reestablish a forest products industry here in the state. We’re hoping that the CFLRP can be part of that solution, but the Forest Service and all involved have struggled with attracting wellcapitalized industry to thin the forest on a much larger scale. A lot of the forest is low-value material, which is part of the challenge. We’ve been working with the Forest Service to develop a request for proposals (RFP) for work on 605,000–818,000 acres across northern and central Arizona, which includes a good portion of our watershed. We hope to get one or more contractors to help remove this material and at the same time create some fairly high-paying jobs and develop more highly valued marketable timber products beyond the low-value
biomass that makes up a large portion of these forests.

Municipal Water Leader: Is the long-term aim to develop a sustainable logging industry in the state?

A healthy forest.

Bruce Hallin: Very much so. A significant quantity of acreage has already been approved by NEPA, and the prescriptions themselves have been designed through NEPA. We support that, and we want to see logging follow all those prescriptions to a T, as outlined in the environmental impact statements (EIS). We don’t want clear cutting; we want to restore the forest to its more natural condition. There is significant support for the EIS, not only from SRP but from a majority of the nongovernmental organizations, academic institutions, and the communities that are affected by wildfire.

Municipal Water Leader: Before you get to the point at which you have a continuous, sustainable logging industry, are you going to have to have people come in and remove the biomass that might not even be marketable?

Bruce Hallin: That will be part of the business plan. The RFP includes requirements to remove biomass. We’re asking the industry to describe how best to remove the biomass and how to take some of the larger material and make higher-value products with it, whether that is dimensional lumber or oriented strand board. If it is not possible for them to make money on removing and processing the timber and biomass, we want to know how large that gap is. Then we can look at how to best fill that gap in cooperation with the Forest Service, the state forestry agency, and the federal government.

Municipal Water Leader: How long do you expect it to take before you reach that sustainable stage?

Bruce Hallin: The objective is to mechanically thin a million acres over 20 years. Right now, we have a fairly low-capitalized industry that’s doing 12,000–14,000 acres a year. We want to increase that to 50,000 acres per year, which would add up to a million over 20 years. However, you also need to go back and actively manage the land you have already thinned. The Forest Service has plans to increase the use of prescribed fire to thin the underbrush. At a later date, we may still need industry to come back through and thin the material that regenerates.

Municipal Water Leader: How does this project compare to what other water suppliers have done in terms of watershed management?

Elvy Barton: The RFP is really a precedent-setting partnership. SRP not only worked with the Forest Service, but we also brought together Reclamation and the State of Arizona to do a 20-year stewardship contract, which was passed in Congress’s 2018 omnibus bill. This is the first 20-year stewardship contract that the Forest Service has ever done, and it is also the first time that the Forest Service has ever worked with partners in this capacity. We not only helped the Forest Service develop the RFP that it published in September, but we’re also going to help it evaluate the proposals that come in and then provide recommendations on who should get awards. We hope that it can serve as a model for other states on how to proceed with landscape-scale restoration.

SRP is taking some innovative and proactive steps to ensure a safe and secure watershed for our customers. In June 2019, SRP’s board and council approved a forest health goal—to my knowledge, we are the only utility with one—that aligns with the 4FRI project of helping thin 50,000 acres a year. SRP is taking a leadership role not only in the state, but also in the region, to demonstrate that there is an opportunity for public-private partnerships to pursue forest health goals and increase the pace and scale of forest restoration.

Elvy Barton is a senior water policy analyst at SRP. She can be contacted at elvy.barton@srpnet.com.

Bruce Hallin is the director of water supply at SRP. For more information about SRP, visit srpnet.com.