Wells are running dry in drought-weary Southwest as foreign-owned farms guzzle water to feed cattle overseas

Workers with the water district in Wenden, Arizona, saw something remarkable last year as they slowly lowered a camera into the drought-stricken town’s well: The water was moving.

But the aquifer which sits below the small desert town in the southwestern part of the state is not a river; it’s a massive, underground reservoir which stores water built up over thousands of years. And that water is almost always still.

Gary Saiter, a longtime resident and head of the Wenden Water Improvement District, said the water was moving because it was being pumped rapidly out of the ground by a neighboring well belonging to Al Dahra, a United Arab Emirates-based company farming alfalfa in the Southwest.

Al Dahra did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.

“The well guys and I have never seen anything like this before,” Saiter told CNN. The farm was “pumping and it was sucking the water through the aquifer.”

Groundwater is the lifeblood of the rural Southwest, but just as the Colorado River Basin is in crisis, aquifers are rapidly depleting from decades of overuse, worsening drought and rampant agricultural growth.

Residents and farms pull water from the same underground pools, and as the water table declines, the thing determining how long a well lasts is how deeply it was drilled.

Now frustration is growing in Arizona’s La Paz County, as shallower wells run dry amid the Southwest’s worst drought in 1,200 years. Much of the frustration is pointed at the area’s huge, foreign-owned farms growing thirsty crops like alfalfa, which ultimately get shipped to feed cattle and other livestock overseas.

“You can’t take water and export it out of the state, there’s laws about that,” said Arizona geohydrologist Marvin Glotfelty, a well-drilling expert. “But you can take ‘virtual’ water and export it; alfalfa, cotton, electricity or anything created in part from the use of water.”

Residents and local officials say lax groundwater laws give agriculture the upper hand, allowing farms to pump unlimited water as long as they own or lease the property to drill wells into. In around 80% of the state, Arizona has no laws overseeing how much water corporate megafarms are using, nor is there any way for the state to track it.

But rural communities in La Paz County know the water is disappearing beneath their feet.

Shallow, residential wells in the county started drying up in 2015, local officials say, and deeper municipal well levels have steadily declined. In Salome, local water utility owner Bill Farr told CNN his well – which supplies water to more than 200 customers, including the local schools – is “nearing the end of its useful life.”

And in Wenden, water in the town well has been plummeting. Saiter told CNN the depth-to-water – how deep below the surface the top of the water table is – has dropped from about 100 feet in the late 1950s to about 540 feet in 2022, already far beyond what an average residential well can reach. Saiter is anxious the farms’ rapid water use could push the water table too low for the town well to draw safe water from.

La Paz County supervisor Holly Irwin told CNN getting the state to act on – or even acknowledge – the region’s dwindling water supply has been a “frustrating” yearslong battle which has left her community feeling “forgotten.”

Middle East agriculture companies “have depleted their [water], that’s why they are here,” Irwin said. “That’s what angers people the most. We should be taking care of our own, and we just allow them to come in, purchase property and continue to punch holes in the ground.”

A resource as good as gold

In 2018, Saudi Arabia finalized a ban on growing thirsty crops like alfalfa and hay to feed livestock and cattle. The reason was simple: the arid Middle East – also struggling with climate change-fueled drought – is running out of water, and agriculture is a huge consumer.

But vast dairy operations are a point of national pride in the Middle East, according to Eckart Woertz, director of the Germany-based GIGA Institute for Middle East Studies. So, they needed to find water somewhere else.

“They have all their cows there and they need feeding. That feedstock comes from abroad,” Woertz told CNN.

Valued at $14.3 billion, the Almarai Company – which owns about 10,000 acres of farmland in Arizona under its subsidiary, Fondomonte – is one of the biggest players in the Middle East’s dairy supply. The company also owns about 3,500 acres in agriculture-heavy Southern California, according to public land records, where they use Colorado River water to irrigate crops.

Woertz said while most of the company’s cattle feed is purchased on the open market, Alamarai took the extra step of buying farmland abroad, as part of a growing trend in foreign-owned farmland in the US. Foreign-owned farmland in the West increased from around 1.25 million acres in 2010 to nearly three million acres in 2020, according to data from the US Department of Agriculture. In the Midwest, foreign-owned farmland has nearly quadrupled.

“It gives you that sense you’re closer to the source,” Woertz added. “The sense that you own land or lease land somewhere else and have direct bilateral access [to water] gives you a sense of maybe false security.”

In the high desert of Arizona, emerald-green fields stretch for miles alongside dry tumbleweeds and Saguaro cactus.

The Fondomonte-owned Vicksburg Ranch near Salome is massive. The company spent $47.5 million to buy nearly 10,000 acres of land there in 2014, and it leases additional farmland from the state.

Huge storage facilities were erected to hold the harvests. Rows of small houses were built for the farm’s workers, all surrounded by flowering desert shrubs. Tractor trailers filled with bales of alfalfa hay rumble down the highway, which local officials told CNN they had to repair because of the increased agricultural traffic.

The alfalfa on the trucks is eventually shipped to feed cattle in Saudi Arabia.

“They’ve definitely increased production,” Irwin said. “They’ve grown so much since they’ve been here.”

Almarai was transparent about why it wanted the land, according to an article on the purchase from Arab News: The transaction was part of “continuous efforts to improve and secure its supply of the highest quality alfalfa hay from outside the Kingdom to support its dairy business.”

“It is also in line with the Saudi government direction toward conserving local resources,” Arab News added.

Representatives of Fondomonte declined an interview request for this story, but Jordan Rose, the company’s Arizona attorney, provided a statement: “Fondomonte decided to invest in the southwest United States just as hundreds of other agricultural businesses have because of the high-quality soils, and climatic conditions that allow growth of some of the finest quality alfalfa in the world.”

Rose added the farm installed “the most technologically advanced conservation oriented watering systems available on the market.”

Indeed, there is nothing illegal about foreign-owned farming in the US. And many American farmers use the West’s water to grow crops which are eventually exported around the globe.

But amid the worst drought in centuries, residents and officials have questioned the merit of allowing countries, which themselves are running out of water, unlimited access to a resource as good as gold in the Southwest.

Cynthia Campbell, water resources management adviser for the city of Phoenix, has been watching the La Paz County water situation with frustration.

Phoenix currently gets most of its water from local rivers and the Central Arizona Project, which diverts Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson. But it could use rural groundwater as a safety net in the coming years if the city’s primary sources are further restricted.

That is, if there is any groundwater left by then.

“We are literally exporting our economy overseas,” Campbell said. “I’m sorry, but there’s no Saudi Arabian milk coming back to Southern California or Arizona. The value of that agricultural output is not coming through in value to the US.”

‘This is home’

Despite the ever-looming water crisis, people are still drawn to small Southwest towns like Wenden and Salome because of the low home prices and the freedom of desert living.

While housing costs in the country rocket upward, rural Arizona has remained a stubbornly affordable place to live. Homes cost between $30,000 and $40,000, and residential taxes paid to the county are below $300 per year, Saiter, the head of Wenden’s water district and a longtime resident, told CNN.

“People are able to afford to live here, versus Phoenix,” Gary’s wife, De Vona Saiter, told CNN. Median incomes in the county are low, “but you can still have a beautiful life.”

The Saiters’ house and rental properties around town – as well as De Vona’s mother Gloria Kaisor’s home down the street – are decorated with hand-drawn art, gardens and antiques.

Kaisor is a longtime resident who first moved to Wenden with her family in the 1960s. After living in Phoenix for years, she gravitated back to the rural area.

“This is home,” Kaisor said. “You don’t hear a noise. It’s quiet. I don’t want to be around a lot of people. You can do whatever you want.”

Yet the impacts of living near a corporate farm are starting to pile up.

Kaisor’s home was inundated with silty, wet mud this summer. Rainfall runoff from a recent monsoon flood carried it from the farm right into Wenden. Gary Saiter believes Al Dahra farm staff have rerouted natural waterways, forcing the rainfall into town rather than out into the desert washes.

Kaisor and her neighbors’ fences are reinforced with sheet metal to try to stop mud and water from coming into their houses, but Kaisor was trapped in her house during a storm earlier this year.

“The whole property was full of mud,” De Vona Saiter said.

Al Dahra did not respond to CNN’s questions for this story, including questions about its water usage, the uptick in residential flooding and potential rerouting of natural waterways.

The company did provide a statement to the Arizona Republic for a story published in 2019: “Water resources in Arizona must be managed wisely in order to preserve our quality of life and to protect the state’s economic health,” Al Dahra said. “The company is fully committed to Arizona and plans to remain here for the long-term.”

Living near the Al Dahra farm also brings more frequent and alarming drought-related impacts.

The floor in De Vona’s shop has sunk a couple inches, she said, and the ground around one well casing has sunk about a foot; so much the wellhead needed to be cut and resized.

With all of this, Gary Saiter doesn’t care if the farm is owned by a company overseas. The way he sees it, it doesn’t make much of a difference who owns the farm; he just wishes they were better neighbors.

“I am kind of ambivalent about the Saudis,” Saiter said. “You can’t control where people sell stuff, and it’s going to go somewhere.”

“I just don’t like the crops they’re growing and the water they’re pumping,” he added.

Kari Avila, superintendent and athletics director for Salome High School, believes the farms are providing local economic benefits. Rose, Fondomonte’s Arizona attorney, told CNN in an email the company is the fourth-largest employer in the county.

“They employ a lot of people,” Avila told CNN. “If they weren’t farming it, someone else would be. A lot of people are upset it’s not Americans farming.”

Avila praised the farms for their internship programs and career fairs. Last year, Al Dahra donated an irrigation pump and generator to water Salome’s high school fields, which had been drying up. Avila said the pump installation for the field was fast and took just a few weeks.

But even as the companies are trying to invest in the area, many still question whether those benefits are worth it as water disappears.

“It’s great,” Irwin, the La Paz County supervisor said, “but if you can’t turn your faucet on in five years, that sh*t’s not going to matter.”

‘You can’t manage what you don’t measure’

The reason some rural residents feel powerless about the fate of their groundwater is because they say Arizona’s state lawmakers have thus far not acted to protect it.

The last time the state passed regulations around groundwater was in 1980, with a law creating certain zones in mostly urban areas, where officials had to ensure they were replenishing underground aquifers and not pumping them dry.

The laws governing the so-called active management areas, or AMAs, are strong compared to groundwater laws in other Southwest states, said Kathleen Ferris, a former top state water official and senior researcher at Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy.

But “outside of the AMAs, not so much,” Ferris told CNN.

About 80% of the state falls outside the active management areas, with no restrictions on how much groundwater can be pumped and no way to monitor it.

“It can’t get any worse” than Arizona’s lack of regulation on rural groundwater, Ferris said. “Let’s put it that way.”

Water officials can measure whether water levels in the aquifers are going up or down, but because groundwater is so lightly regulated in rural areas, they don’t have enough data to answer a crucial question: Exactly how much water is left?

“That is one of the challenges of our state; you can’t manage what you don’t measure,” said top Arizona water official Tom Buschatzke, the director of the state’s Department of Water Resources. “We do the best we can with the data and estimated data that we have, but it really begs questions about how much benefit we can really provide.”

As the West’s water crisis grows more intense, groundwater reform has become a flashpoint in this year’s election campaigns.

Arizona attorney general candidate Kris Mayes, a Democrat, has seized on the state’s practice of leasing public land to corporate farms, including more than 6,000 acres leased to Fondomonte, according to the state land department.

A recent investigation by the Arizona Republic found Fondomonte – the second-largest agricultural lessor of Arizona land – is paying the state a heavily discounted rate which does not take their water usage into account.

Mayes said she thinks the leases violate the state constitution and has vowed to cancel them if she’s elected.

“It shouldn’t have happened in the first place,” Mayes told Irwin in September, standing outside Fondomonte’s farm. “We can get these leases canceled, and we should. We are essentially giving our water away for free to a Saudi corporation, and that has to come to an end.”

The Arizona State Land Department is studying the state’s water resources in western Arizona, department spokesman Bill Fathauer told CNN. But he added it does not have the authority to implement additional groundwater restrictions.

“The comprehensive data determined from these studies will allow the Department to make an informed decision about not only future land use in these areas but also help determine what the future value of the land is as well,” Fathauer said in an email.

The kind of sweeping water reforms Arizona needs must ultimately come from the state legislature, says outgoing state House member Regina Cobb, a Republican.

For years, Cobb tried to advance bills to allow local officials to regulate their aquifers. The bills never got a committee hearing, Cobb said, never mind making it to the floor for a vote. CNN reached out to Gov. Doug Ducey and top Arizona lawmakers in the state House and Senate for comment; none responded.

As the Colorado River shrinks and Arizona’s share of the water continues to be cut, Cobb told CNN the state’s approach to groundwater has been unthinkable.

“Why are we allowing a foreign company to come into Arizona – which is drought-stricken right now – and have a sweetheart deal [on leases], when we are trying to conserve as much water as we can?” she asked.

“It boggles my mind.”

Click HERE to read the full article by Ella Nilse at cnn.com.

The second coming of the Apache trout

In a first, a salmonid is on track for delisting from the list of threatened and endangered species. The promise of gold and opportunity has long been a driving force of settlement across the American West, much to the detriment of native populations and the iconic landscapes now in need of prolonged restoration and conservation efforts.

Today, a new gold rush exists to reverse these trends in Arizona. But instead of settlers lugging panning gear and sluice boxes, it is now small groups of anglers carrying upwards of 70 pounds of equipment along miles of remote rivers and streams to count the number of elusive “yellowbellies,” a nickname for a threatened native trout species that survives nowhere else.

Found predominantly in the White Mountains of the Fort Apache Indian Reservation—about four hours east of Phoenix—native Apache trout were plentiful in these mountain headwaters during Arizona’s frontier days, inhabiting nearly 700 miles of streams.

Due to habitat loss and overfishing, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service formally listed the Apache trout under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973, but downlisted it to “threatened” status shortly afterwards in 1975.

Conservation actions led by the White Mountain Apache Tribe over the past decades, however, have compelled Fish & Wildlife to formally recommend delisting Arizona’s state fish from the ESA—a first for a sport fish in our nation’s history.

In its recommendation, the agency commended the cooperation among tribal, state, federal, and non-governmental organizations like TU for the prolonged efforts to secure this conservation victory.

“We would like to thank our partners for their engagement and collaborative efforts alongside the Service towards the recovery of the Apache trout,” said Amy Lueders, Regional Director for the Fish and Wildlife Service. “We are excited to say the recovery actions by the White Mountain Apache Tribe and other partners have led to the recommendation to delist the species from the ESA.”

In connection with this, the recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law also allocates over $2 million from the National Fish Passage Program to remove barriers that are no longer needed thanks to non-native trout removal, which will open up 52 stream miles of Apache trout habitat for new populations.

“The White Mountain Apache Tribe has been a steward of this conservation effort for well over 100 years,” said Alan Davis, chair of Arizona TU. “They truly deserve a monumental amount of credit for recognizing the need to protect this unique species well before anyone else and laying the groundwork decades ago for this conservation win.”

Apache trout, which are closely related to the rainbow, have medium-sized spots spread evenly across their olive body and golden underbelly. The species was a traditional staple of the White Mountain Apache Tribe’s diet until threats and damage to the habitat of the species through forestry practices and the population boom of the late-19th century.

“At the time, settlers were quite reckless, with instances of people catching hundreds of fish per day and calling it their ‘daily catch,’” said Davis.

To try to address this problem, “people brought in browns, rainbows, brookies,” said Tim Gatewood, the White Mountain Apache Tribe’s longtime fisheries manager, in an interview for TROUT magazine in 2017. “These out-competed the Apache trout and pushed them into a few headwater sanctuaries.”

The introduction of non-native trout threw the fragile Apache trout populations into chaos and threatened their genetic integrity and viability, resulting in the Tribe closing the Mount Baldy headwater streams to fishing in 1955 to preserve what was left of the pure-strain Apache trout and its remaining 30 miles of habitat.

“We respect all creatures,” said Gatewood. “We respect the water and the life that was found there in the beginning.

Over the coming decades, the Tribe moved decisively to recognize the Apache trout as deserving of special protection, and protected the trout from hybridization, predation, and further habitat loss through a series of efforts, including non-native fish removal, the construction of conservation barriers to separate Apache trout populations from non-native trout, and the development of a stronger outdoor economy.

Working with state and federal agencies, the tribe also began a hatchery program for Apache trout that today raises millions of trout eggs that are hatched and grown into catchable-size fish. Each year, about 100,000 Apache trout are stocked in lakes in May and June and weekly throughout the summer in area streams, such as the North Fork of the White River.

But this Sisyphean work paid off as a clearer picture of surviving Apache trout populations came into focus. In 2017, TU worked closely with the White Mountain Apache Tribe, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Arizona Game and Fish Department, and the U.S. Forest Service to begin a count of the Apache trout population.

“We worked closely with our partners to establish a scientifically-credible monitoring framework,” said Dan Dauwalter, TU’s fisheries science director, “and then implemented it over the last five years to prove the vitality of Apache trout populations.”

By sampling approximately 20 percent of habitat occupied by the Apache trout, the monitoring went far beyond the typical threshold for trout monitoring.

Based on the findings of the monitoring, Dauwalter and the core team of partners drafted a Species Status Assessment (SSA) for the Apache trout, which provided a science-based assessment of the needs, current status, and future conditions of the species. In turn, the Fish & Wildlife Service relied heavily on these data to justify its formal recommendation to delist the Apache trout.

“What’s noteworthy about the SSA is the longevity and consistent level of cooperation we found with each of our partners throughout this project,” said Dauwalter. “Even during the pandemic, we were able to pursue our objectives and communicate regularly with one another to compile and analyze the data and write the assessment.”

Davis said public interest in fishing and looking for ways to get outdoors sparked during the pandemic.

“Interest in conservation and the Apache trout also took off,” he said. “We had a Zoom presentation providing updates about Apache trout restoration efforts and delisting recommendations that were attended by nearly 300 people.”

Arizona TU drove awareness through both virtual and in-person meetings over the years, including its annual Native and Wild Trout Conference, which educates attendees about the importance of the native species like the Apache trout. They also helped fund conservation efforts for Apache trout through the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

“The Arizona Game and Fish Department is excited about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to move forward with a delisting proposal for the Apache trout,” said Zach Beard, the native trout and chub coordinator for the department. “This is an amazing opportunity to delist the first native fish species in Arizona thanks to many recovery actions taken by the numerous partners involved in Apache trout recovery.”

The next step by Fish & Wildlife is to publish a proposed rule to delist the Apache trout. The proposed rule, expected by the end of 2022, will include a 60-day comment period seeking input from the general public.

“Much like its history, the Apache trout recovery effort will continue for decades to come,” said Davis. “We look forward to being a part of that story.”

Click HERE to read the full article by Nick Gann at tu.org.

Scottsdale resident wins national conservation award

Longtime native trout defender Jim Walker, of Scottsdale, has been awarded Trout Unlimited’s highest grassroots honor.

Walker was awarded the Ray Mortensen award, the coldwater conservation organization’s top volunteer honor, along with Marsha Benevengo of New Jersey at TU’s annual meeting July 20-24 in Portland, Maine, according to a press release.

Walker has been an active TU volunteer since 1989, and has held a series of high-level national leadership positions since 2009. A member of the Board of Trustees since 2013, Walker has most recently served as the chairman of TU’s National Leadership Council since 2018.

“In 2010 Jim co-founded and has since co-chaired the Arizona Native and Wild Trout Conference,” Trout Unlimited President and CEO Chris Wood said. “He has made more than 30 visits to Washington, D.C., to meet with Congressional offices and as many to meet with representatives in his home states to advocate for trout and cold, clean water.”

Walker, who was previously recognized as a TU National Stream Champion in 2012, has taken the Trout in the Classroom program in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area from three schools to more than 40.

“As we know, though, Jim’s greatest strengths lie in ensuring that he doesn’t do anything entirely by himself,” Wood said. “He perpetuates TU in his engagement of others. And he may just be one of the nicest people on earth.”

Walker said he was honored to receive the award.

“Like the past recipients, I have served whenever I could be of assistance and have encouraged others to do so as well,” he said. “I am thankful for the recognition, and when I view this award, I will remember the contributions to TU made by all volunteers.”

Ray Mortensen was a founding member of TU’s Chattooga River chapter in Clemson, S.C. He held numerous leadership positions with the chapter and the South Carolina State Council, including council chair. As a member of the TU National Resource Board, he helped shape TU’s National Conservation Agenda until his death in 1998.

The meeting in Portland drew more than 300 participants, including Trout Unlimited volunteer leaders from 37 states and leaders of partner organizations.

Corporate sponsors included L.L. Bean, Costa, Yeti, The Nature Conservancy, Allagash Brewing Company, EA Engineering and Orvis.

Benevengo was drawn to fly fishing after 9/11, finding solace on the water. A resident of Manalapan, N.J., she has been a longtime volunteer for Casting for Recovery, an organization that helps breast cancer survivors experience the healing power of fly fishing. A former director of diversity for her chapter, Benevengo was elected chair of the New Jersey Council in April of 2020, becoming the first woman of color to head a TU state council.

“As the daughter of a social worker and policeman, giving back is clearly a part of her DNA,” said Wood. “Of all the volunteer leader jobs at TU, it’s by far and away the most involved. It requires the management of all the chapters in the state, state level advocacy, communications, youth and veterans’ engagement, diversity and inclusion work, and so much more.

“Marsha took over at a time of need for her council. She’s brought rigor, direction, vision and good humor to each of these activities.”

Benevengo brings her leadership well beyond New Jersey, participating in TU’s national strategic planning process and for many years she’s contributing to the NLC’s Diversity and Inclusion workgroup.

“My role with TU and the work that I am involved in along with some amazing women conservationists and anglers defeats the foolish notion that women ‘cannot’ and people of color ‘don’t,’” she said. “We are making strides now and for future generations.”

Click HERE to read the full article on the Daily Independent.

Frye and Marijilda Creek ONGI Stocking 10/27 and 10/28

On Wednesday (Oct. 27), Native Trout and Chub program, Region 5, Region 1, Region 2, Region 3, Canyon Creek Hatchery, Research Branch, and Habitat Branch staff along with several volunteers from organizations such as Trout Unlimited (TU) and Oxbow Ecological Engineering successfully stocked 500 Gila Trout (South Diamond lineage) in the lower section of Marijilda Creek. All the fish were stocked starting where the Around the Mountain Trail crosses the stream and extending upstream for ~ 1 mi.

At the same time, Region 5, Region 6, USFS, and USFWS staff along with several volunteers from organizations such as the Old Pueblo Chapter of Trout Unlimited successfully stocked 250 Gila Trout (South Diamond Lineage) into Frye Creek. Approximately half of the fish were stocked into the section of Frye Creek near where the trail switchbacks up away from the stream, approximately 1 mile upstream from the parking lot, and the other half were stocked in a section of Frye Creek about 0.5 mile upstream from the first stocking location.

On Thursday (Oct. 28), Native Trout and Chub program, Region 5, USFS, and USFWS staff stocked 100 Gila Trout (Whiskey Creek lineage) into the upper section of Marijilda Creek near Shannon Campground.

I really want to thank all of the staff and volunteers who helped out with this stocking event!! Your help makes these projects possible and it is greatly appreciated! I would also like to thank Evan Mosser from Mora National Fish Hatchery for delivering all the fish for these stockings, along with the rest of the staff at Mora NFH for raising these fish!

Finally, you can view photos from these stockings in this folder. If you helped out and have photos you’re willing to share please upload them to that folder in the appropriate subfolder.

Please feel free to pass this on to anyone I may have missed and let me know if you have any questions!

-Zach

Zachary Beard | Native Trout and Chub Coordinator
Arizona Game and Fish Department
MOBILE: 414.534.4747
OFFICE: 623.236.7653
EMAIL: zbeard@azgfd.gov
azgfd.gov | 5000 West Carefree Highway, Phoenix AZ 85086
Join our new Conservation Membership program and ensure a wildlife legacy for the future.

The Future of Trout Fishing in the West Could Be in Hot Water

Experts say the future of cold-water fish species like trout and salmon depends on climate restoration, and anglers themselves.

By mid-July this summer, laminated signs attached to caution cones lined the Yampa River throughout Steamboat Springs, Colorado, declaring: “ALL RIVER USERS ARE ASKED TO REFRAIN FROM ENTERING THE YAMPA RIVER UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.”

Flows were 20 percent of normal. Water temperatures approached 80 degrees during the day. A river usually full of people bobbing on float tubes, paddling on standup boards, or casting lines to fish holding in deep, clear pools was void of human activity.

The Yampa River, which winds about 250 miles from the Flat Top Mountains through Steamboat Springs, and into lower elevations was not alone this summer. Rivers across the West were closed for much of the summer—by mandate or as volunteer restrictions—in a desperate attempt by water managers to keep fish alive. These closures made headlines during this summer of historic drought, but really, the issues trace farther back than a single fishing season.

“If you look at the last four years, it’s been very tough on trout,” says Bill Atkinson, aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Steamboat Springs. “We had about 3,200 trout per mile over 6 inches in my fall sampling on the Yampa River through Steamboat in 2015. In the fall of 2019, that was down to about 1,900 trout per mile.”

That’s a decrease of 40 percent. This year could be even worse, he says.

Anyone paying attention to news from the West this summer heard stories like these. We read about historic wildfires consuming towns, of salmon floating belly up, and of streams drying. But the root of the issue here isn’t about what happened in June, July, or August, and is still happening now. It’s about why hot water is so bad for cold-water species like trout and whitefish, and what could be done—if anything—to make the situation better.
Because if nothing changes, and the drought that’s been plaguing the western U.S. for 20 years continues, fisheries managers and anglers say this summer’s fishing restrictions on iconic rivers in the West will become the norm.

“We’re in a real seminal moment for fish,” says Kirk Deeter, editor and chief of Trout Unlimited media and editor of Angling Trade, who lives in Steamboat Springs and hasn’t fished the Yampa in the past two summers because of heat and drought.

“Somehow we need to figure out a way to work together. We have to find a roadmap for sustainable fishing, especially for trout fishing. It’s been a perfect storm with the effects of climate change, an influx of so many anglers and all the things we’ve talked about for years now. It’s all lined up, and the species cannot sustain it if we don’t get smarter.”

Hot Weather and Low Water Spells Trouble for Trout

Trout, salmon, and whitefish evolved to prefer temperatures between the low 50s and low 60s. Water temperatures higher than 70 become dangerous. Water in the high 70s and 80s, especially for more than an afternoon and evening, can be lethal. 

Warmer water carries less oxygen. It’s also harder for a cold-water species like trout to absorb oxygen from warm water, says Atkinson.

Lower, warmer water also fosters more vegetation to grow on stream bottoms. During the day, plants produce oxygen, but at night they absorb oxygen. That means trout are stressed from heat when rivers are warmest during the day, but then can’t recover as well at night when dissolved oxygen levels drop even more.

Maybe even more importantly, for every 10 degrees Celsius water increases, a trout’s metabolic rate roughly doubles, says Atkinson. That means from 50 degrees Fahrenheit to 68, a fish needs to eat even more.

“When you get into the high 70s, they’re quite uncomfortable,” Atkinson says. “In some ways, it’s analogous to people. When it’s extremely hot out, a lot of people’s appetite tends to diminish. You get 95- to 100-degree days, you want to find a cool spot and don’t feel like eating a whole lot.”

So instead of eating, they look for a cool spot to take refuge. But because water is low, those cool spots are more limited and often occupied by bigger fish. Fighting other fish takes energy and burns more calories. It also produces lactic acid.

“It’s like humans getting a leg cramp. You’re not getting enough oxygen, [like when] a runner or swimmer cramps up. You’re building up lactic acid in your muscles,” Atkinson says. “The same thing [happens] with fish. That’s when they build up lactic acid, and it can be lethal.”

Worse yet, lactic acid buildup requires high quantities of oxygen to eliminate. The result of all those factors means that fish spending several months of the year just laying low, trying to survive when they should be feeding and fattening up for winter.

Factor in an angler hooking a trout and fighting it through warm water for even a few minutes, and the fish may not stand a chance.

Hooking mortality can be as high as 68 percent in some species of fish. How many fish die depends heavily on bait type, hook type, and how long it takes to land the fish, when water temperatures reach the 70s, even the cleanest releases on barbless hooks can kill fish, Atkinson says.

A Future of Smaller—and Fewer—Fish

Will trout fishing go away in the summer in the West? No. Plenty of places will still offer opportunity. Tail waters below reservoirs where water temperatures stay more consistently cool like the famous Grey Reef section of the North Platte River in Wyoming and the Green River below Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Utah will provide healthy fish in the summer, even if they’re a bit more sluggish. High mountain streams at 10,000 or 11,000 feet will also stay cool enough to handle fishing pressure—at least for now.

But rivers like the Yampa, where it flows through places like Steamboat, won’t fare as well.

“I’m very nervous,” Atkinson says. “When you have these low water years, you’re talking about competition for food but also competition for space.”

If a fish’s energy goes to fighting hooks and staying alive, it’s not going to grow as much. If anglers on public stretches of the Yampa are used to catching 16-to 17-inch fish, those may well become 14-or 15-inch trout. (This excludes, of course, private waters stocked with bigger fish.)

“Over a long period with drought years, that’s the best you could expect in some systems,” Atkinson says. “When you start factoring in the incredible increase in anglers throughout the West, combined with tough environmental conditions, you can’t expect to have the same numbers of big fish people are used to. It’s not feasible.”

Rivers that are already marginally too warm to support trout and angling may well begin to permanently close portions of the summer, says Jon Ewert, an aquatic biologist in Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Hot Sulphur Springs region.

In Montana, where many rivers faced at least a partial if not full closure on fishing this summer, fisheries officials will continue to decide the fate of fishing on each river each year, says Eileen Ryce, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks’ chief of fisheries. At some point, either regulations will limit fishing, Deeter says, or the fish themselves will force a change.

Can We Mitigate Further Trout Loss?

Voluntary or formal closures on rivers when they’re too hot or too low isn’t new. But, Ryce says, “This year was unprecedented.”

“We were putting them on earlier in the year than other years and there were more of them. We had some on rivers that we have never had to do before.”

The first step toward closing a river and protecting the fishery is to ask anglers to stop fishing from 2 p.m. to 6 a.m. the following morning. Montana calls this daily closure a “hoot owl” restriction, a throwback to when loggers stopped working in the early afternoon because of increased fire danger. 

The next step is closing a river completely, either on a volunteer basis or a formal closure.

The city of Steamboat Springs itself sets rules for commercial users within the city limits. And the closure isn’t just for anglers, but all river users: boaters, paddlers, swimmers, and more.

Their advisory reads: “We hope by removing the additional stress associated with recreation, that we can sustain the river’s health through the current adverse conditions. We will continue to monitor the river flow, temperature and dissolved oxygen levels and will lift the voluntary restrictions when conditions improve.”
Atkinson says most river users complied.

“When you have a sky full of smoke and wildfires burning around you, it should tell you something,” he says. “It doesn’t take much for people to look at what was going on in the river when it was 30 percent of average, and see it was not good.”

Permits limiting angling for public stretches of certain waters may also become a reality in the future, Atkinson says. But fisheries officials also say that fish kills, fishing restrictions, and a changing landscape aren’t necessarily foregone conclusions.

Land management agencies could plant more trees along banks where they once were. Shaded areas can be up to 45 degrees cooler than areas in the sun, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Researchers are working on ideas to restore river channels, such as allowing water to flow underground and seep in and out of banks, providing natural cooling. Lawmakers across the West are talking more and more about possible dam removals to keep water moving.

The Colorado Water Trust raised money to provide water out of a small Yampa reservoir to augment flows. The city of Steamboat and the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District also contributed. But long term across the West, even that has its limitations. Wars are fought over water. More often than not, it’s the fish who lose the battle.

A Looming Crash for Trout Town U.S.A.?

For Deeter, the answer on many of these rivers is to just stop fishing in the heat of the summer. Or perhaps go fishing but stop after catching one or two fish instead of 20 or 30. And ultimately, the climate might just decide for us.

“I am usually an optimist, but I don’t know, I really don’t know,” he says. “Fly fishing as an industry is a bull market. It boomed and now the fisheries themselves are entering a bear market. It’s boom on the commerce and participation side, but it’s a bear market for the fish themselves.”

There are plenty of Western towns that are built around summer flyfishing for trout and the tourism they attract. So what happens when summer access is limited on the most popular rivers, or when the fishing quality takes a dive? It’s impossible to know for sure how the western fishing industry—including guides, outfitters, and resorts—will adapt. One thing is clear, however: Anglers will not travel to a fly-fishing destination that doesn’t offer better fishing than they can get at home. 

Deeter sees three possibilities. One: We figure out how to work together and, to some degree, convince each other to not spend hot days catching as many fish as possible. Two: The government increases regulation and temporarily closes fisheries that are increasingly prone to hot water and low flows during the summer. Or three: We let nature take its course.

“Letting the economics of everything take its course is a sad outcome,” he says. “If it gets to a point where the fishing is so bad no one wants to fish anymore, that’s a collective loss for the industry.”

Is that going to happen? Certainly not everywhere. And most fly fishing towns in the West have multiple options for fishing, though the more rivers that decline or are closed, the more pressure that puts on fisheries that still offer good fishing and aren’t too hot.
So maybe more summer anglers turn to either tailwaters that can handle the pressure, or to warm water species that thrive in hot weather. Fly fishing for carp is becoming more popular, even in Western fishing towns. Maybe guides and anglers will adapt to catching new fish.

Or maybe we decide to work together to improve habitat, slow climate change, and take care of the resources we share.

Click HERE to read the full article by Christine Peterson on the Outdoor Life website.

Jim Stipe is featured in the The Western Voices Project

Too often, press coverage of Western conservation issues includes policy experts but not the voices of people who work, live, and play in our public lands and waterways.

To help enrich national and local media coverage of conservation policy issues, The Western Voices Project was launched to empower organizations and individuals to share their personal experiences and opinions with the media.

Western Voices staff flag opportunities for volunteer project participants to communicate with the media. Public relations services are provided pro-bono to participating organizations and individuals.

Jim Stipe is former President of the Arizona Council of Trout Unlimited, which works to protect Arizona’s trout and trout fisheries for the enjoyment of future generations.

“I grew up fishing and it became what I do. It’s what I did with my grandfather, what I do with my father, and what I’ll do with my son. But bit by bit, we’re losing what we hope our children would have, what makes the West special and different. We should be bending over backwards to protect our heritage.”

Click HERE to read the full article on the Western Conservation Foundation website.

Celebrating a Life Outdoors: Leigh H. Perkins, 1927-2021

Leigh H. Perkins, who purchased The Orvis Company in 1965 and over the next three decades transformed it into one of the country’s most respected sporting, apparel, and dog brands, passed away at the age of 93 on May 7, 2021, in Monticello, Florida.

Although he built his reputation as a shrewd businessman and marketer, Leigh was most at home wading in a trout stream or walking behind a bird dog in the field. He was a lifelong outdoorsman who hunted or fished more than 250 days a year into his 90s, and his reverence for nature was at the heart of his drive to conserve land and water resources for future generations.

Born in Cleveland in 1927, Leigh was raised by a mother, Katharine Perkins, who was a dedicated angler and hunter at a time when there were few women who engaged in the outdoors. It was she who fostered his passion for nature and the sporting pursuits, and these experiences shaped his desire to conserve woods and waters so that others could enjoy them. “She taught me to fish and hunt, and she was my principal sporting companion for the first 18 years of my life,” he wrote in his 1999 autobiography, A Sportsman’s Life: How I Built Orvis by Mixing Business and Sport. Together, they caught bluegills from farm ponds, cast to cutthroats in Montana, traveled to the Atlantic salmon rivers of the Gaspe Peninsula, and shot grouse, quail, and ducks.

Although he was born into a wealthy Midwestern family, Leigh chose to make his own way in the world after graduating from Williams College in 1950. He started as a rodman on a survey crew in the iron mines of northern Minnesota, working his way up to foreman before taking a job as a salesman for Cleveland’s Harris Calorific, which made gas welding and cutting equipment. It was during this time that he discovered the value of listening to the needs of customers, which would serve him well as he built Orvis. As Leigh once told his grandson, Simon, “You always learn more by listening than by talking.” Leigh often spent time taking phone calls and reading customer letters to ensure that he was serving their needs, a practice that continues at Orvis today.

The idea of mixing business and his sporting passions first occurred to Leigh when he began looking for a company of his own to build. He had been a customer of the Vermont-based Orvis since his college days in western Massachusetts. After a nine-month courtship with then owner Dudley “Duckie” Corkran, Leigh closed the deal on the first day of 1965. He was a hands-on owner, serving as president, merchandiser, art director, product-developer, and whatever else needed doing. His attention to detail was legendary, and he personally approved every item in the catalog.

Over the next 27 years, Leigh would grow the company—founded in 1856 by Charles F. Orvis—from a niche business with 20 employees and $500,000 in annual sales to a mail-order and retail powerhouse with more than 700 employees and sales topping $90 million. Along the way, he was a pioneer in both business and product development. Among the first to capitalize on changes in the direct-marketing world, Leigh made the Orvis catalog a household fixture from coast to coast and opened Orvis retail stores in cities around the country.

Leigh prioritized products that solved problems and enhanced a person’s time on the water or in the field. He introduced the first retractable zinger to hold fly-fishing tools and the first Gore-Tex rainwear. Orvis graphite fly rods were not the first on the market, but they were better-designed and more durable than competitors’. Leigh’s love for working dogs led to perhaps his biggest coup, the Orvis Dog Nest bed—the first of its kind sold in the U.S. in 1977—launching an entire category for the company.

In 1966, Leigh launched the world’s first fly-fishing school in Manchester, Vermont, teaching 150 students the basics. He added a wingshooting school several years later. “It was one of the first outdoor schools of its kind,” says Tom Rosenbauer, Orvis’s chief fly-fishing enthusiast and one of the sport’s best-known teachers, anglers, and authors. “Kids got that kind of stuff at summer camp, but it was groundbreaking for adults and the industry.” The company now offers free instruction to more than 15,000 would-be anglers per year. As his grandson Simon explains, “His passion for education and sharing has grown over the years into an important Orvis legacy of increasing access and participation in the fly-fishing and wingshooting communities.”

For Leigh, the importance of handing down family traditions—in life and in business—to the next generation was always on his mind. As his mother had done for him, Leigh passed on his passions to his children, who are all keen anglers, wingshooters, and conservationists. His sons—Leigh H. “Perk” Perkins, Jr. and David—made Orvis their lives’ work. When Leigh retired in 1992, Perk became president and CEO, with Dave working alongside him. Under their leadership, Orvis quadrupled in size. Today, the company is run by Perk’s son, Simon, while his brother, Charley, and his cousin, Hannah, also hold important positions in the business.

Leigh’s fervent belief that anglers and hunters must work to protect those resources that make time in the outdoors so fulfilling became a company ethos and business imperative. In the 1980s, he helped pioneer corporate conservation efforts by donating 5 percent of pre-tax profits to conserving fish and wildlife through organizations including Trout Unlimited, the Ruffed Grouse Society, the Nature Conservancy, and the Atlantic Salmon Federation. “I think this is his greatest and most lasting contribution to the outdoors and the industry,” says Rosenbauer. “It wasn’t a cynical business decision. Leigh did it because he wanted to be a steward of this world he loved. And if the company didn’t make enough profits in a year to support a project, he would reach into his own pocket, quietly, without telling a single customer or even his employees.” He also served on a variety of non-profit boards, and in 1985, he founded the Orvis-Perkins Foundation, which has donated millions of dollars to habitat and wildlife conservation efforts over the years. “It’s no exaggeration to say that Leigh Perkins was a friend to anglers everywhere,” says Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops and long-time friend of Mr. Perkins. “Leigh was a lifelong conservationist. Through his generosity and clear-headed advocacy, he was an inspiration to all of us who care about the outdoors. He was one of our heroes.”

Humble with a self-effacing sense of humor, Leigh once responded to an interviewer who asked what he’d like to be remembered for by saying, “my duck soup recipe.” However, for his dedication and impact on the outdoor world, Leigh received many accolades, including the 1992 Chevron Conservation Award. Nine years later, the University of Minnesota awarded Leigh an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, for “[helping] some of the most prominent and important conservation organizations in the world to modernize their practices, create scientific research programs and achieve their potential for service,” as well as for creating a permanent forest-wildlife research program at the university. In 2016, Bonefish and Tarpon Trust named Leigh Sportsman of Year, honoring his conservation work and dedication to the preservation of the fish and waters he so loved.

Despite all the good he did, Leigh didn’t think of himself as a do-gooder. “No one feels sorry for me,” he once said. “I’ve done exactly what I enjoy most all my life.” It is that example of pursuing the real joy in life that he will be remembered for by everyone with the good luck to have known him.

Leigh H. Perkins is survived by his wife, Anne; children Perk Perkins, David Perkins, Molly Perkins, and Melissa McAvoy; stepchildren Penny Mesic, Annie Ireland, and Jamie Ireland; grandchildren Simon Perkins, Charley Perkins, Hannah Perkins, Molly Perkins, Jake Perkins, Leigh Perkins, Spencer McAvoy, Emma McAvoy, Ralph McAvoy, Melissa Mesic Marshall, and James Mesic; three great-grandchildren; and a pack of four-legged family members.

Click HERE for the full news post by Phil Monahan on Orvis.com.

Fishing nets 5 million new & returning anglers in 2020

2020 was the perfect storm for fishing participation, and consumer sentiment is prime for continued growth in 2021.

Fifty-five million Americans age 6+ went fishing in 2020 according to preliminary data from the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation’s (RBFF) 2021 Special Report on Fishing. These 5 million new and returning anglers, who are younger, more diverse and live in urban areas, represent 10% growth in fishing participation in 2020. In addition to overall participation gains, RBFF saw substantial gains in key segments for growth including youth, women and diverse audiences.

“Fishing, like all other outdoor activities, clearly benefited from the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the skillful execution of marketing campaigns pre-COVID has allowed fishing and boating to rise to the top of the consideration set for consumers looking for outdoor activities,” said RBFF Senior Vice President of Marketing & Communications, Stephanie Vatalaro. “2020 was the perfect storm for fishing participation, and consumer sentiment is prime for continued growth in 2021.”

RBFF is releasing participation data early this year to help inform the industry’s efforts to engage and retain these new audiences.

2021 SPECIAL REPORT KEY FINDINGS:

  • Fishing participation rate rose to 18% of the U.S. population, the highest rate in over a decade
  • Youth participation in 2020 grew 53% to 13.5 million total participants
  • Hispanics participated at an all-time high with 4.8 million participants, a 13% increase from 2019
  • 19.7 million female participants represented a 36% of total participants, an all time high
  • Nearly 1.8 million more women went fishing than in the year prior, with a 10% increase
  • First- time participants climbed to 4.4 million (up from 3.1 million last year)
  • Reactivated participants soared at 9.0 million (compared to 6.8 million last year)
  • 88% of current fishing participants fished before the age of 12

Preliminary data also identified a troubling three-year trend among lapsed anglers. In 2020, 8.8 million anglers lapsed out of the sport. This group is primarily made up of Americans age 55+ who cite lack of time, preference for other outdoor activities, cost, loss of interest and lack of access to waterways as the primary reasons they lapsed.

“As an industry, we need to plug our leaky bucket to realize our goal of reaching 60 million anglers by the end of 2021,” added Vatalaro.

RBFF will continue to release new fishing participation data over the course of the next several weeks. The full report will be available in early Summer.

Click HERE for the full press release from the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation.

TU is keeping tabs on important bills before the Arizona Legislature

Trout Unlimited is known for its rock-rolling work where we are often found with our waders on making rivers and streams better for trout and salmon, and of course, anglers. But we also spend plenty of time in our finest attire in the halls of state and federal legislative buildings advocating for smart water policies, protecting public lands and funding allocations to continue our on-the-ground efforts.

With Arizona’s legislative session ramping up, here is a look at some of the bills we are watching and how we’ll play both offense and defense to advance our goals of conserving, protecting and restoring our coldwater fisheries and their watersheds.

HB2056 – This bill, introduced by Rep. Griffin, allows instream water rights holders to have more flexibility with their allocated water allowing for better habitat for aquatic species as well as downstream users. The concern for many water rights holders is the loss of that water right, but this bill would allow these holders to keep more water in the stream for beneficial use while maintaining their water rights.

HB2247 – Also, introduced by Rep. Griffin, this bill would offer tax incentives for companies willing to help with the massive task of removing slash/biomass from areas within the 4FRI footprint and surrounding forest area. We have coined this the “biomass bottleneck” because with thinning and creating healthier forests comes a massive amount (up to 50 tons per acre) of small timber, limbs, shrubs and smaller debris that also needs to be removed. Without this tax credit, there is little incentive for removal of this product; therefore, making forest thinning nearly impossible. Companion legislation has also been introduced in the Senate, SB1177 with Sen. Kerr as the primary sponsor.

HB2127 – The AZ Heritage Fund would give $10 million to park and trail maintenance. Introduced by Representatives Osborne: Blackman, Bowers, Chávez, Cook, Dunn, Hernandez A, Jermaine, Lieberman; and Nutt. This bill has a good chance of passing and would be a boon to anglers, hunters and recreationists across the state.

Of course, we’ll keep our readers updated on the happenings in Arizona’s legislature, and we’ll reach out if we need assistance in advocating for these and perhaps other bills. Keep an eye on TU.org and our Facebook page for the AZTU council for more.

With roadblocks comes opportunity in Arizona

With massive projects like the proposed forest and watershed restoration efforts in Arizona come massive roadblocks. But roadblocks won’t deter Arizona Trout Unlimited from accomplishing its critical goals of forest and, therefore, watershed restoration.

If you’ll recall in our first blog post in this series, AZTU has been at the table urging forest restoration initiatives through the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) to enhance watershed health for humans as well as trout. In this next installment, we want to alert readers to some of the roadblocks that remain and what AZTU is doing to help solve them.

Across the West, the summer of 2020 saw great devastation from wildfires. While Arizona had several fires, the destruction doesn’t compare to that of West Coast states. However, the Bush Fire burned 195,000 acres in the Tonto National Forest northeast of Phoenix and threatened its water supply. While outside the 4FRI footprint, this fire caused great concern because it burned an area adjacent to a series of reservoirs comprising a major portion of the water supply for the Phoenix Metropolitan area and hosting several warmwater fisheries. Concern remains for long-term runoff impacts on those waters. Across the state fires burned more than 700,000 acres, more than 2018 and 2019 combined. The fires in Arizona highlighted the urgency needed to restore forests and watersheds to their healthiest versions.

So, in an effort to continue moving things forward with 4FRI’s goals, the state and the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently signed a memorandum of understanding stating that they will continue collaborating on planning and implementation focused on shared stewardship in regard to land management, protection of municipalities and watersheds and restoration. Of particular interest to AZTU is the portion stating this collaboration will protect and preserve aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems and provide sustainable habitats for species of interest supporting Arizona’s robust hunting, fishing, sight-seeing, birdwatching and recreation economies. AZTU representatives and other interests are working to help define how this collaboration will work through specific working group meetings.

While this MOU and its collaborative nature is a positive step forward, there is need to look at bottlenecks holding up these efforts. First, there is the cost to implement 4FRI projects. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) will gain some help mitigating costs from state agencies such as the AZ Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) and the Department of Forestry and Fire Management (DFFM), but there is still a large funding gap. The USFS and a number of other collaborators, including TU, are also investigating conservation finance, which is an approach to leverage private and foundation-based finances to meet some of 4FRI’s goals.

Closely tied to the finance issue is the so called “biomass bottleneck.” With 50,000 acres on tap to be mitigated each year for 20 years, there comes a significant amount of biomass (limbs, shrubs, smaller debris — as much as 50 tons per acre) from forest thinning. What can be done with this biomass and who will pay for that? Because this biomass has little monetary value and can be costly to move and process, the forest thinning effort, the key component of the 4FRI effort, is highly compromised. The Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC), which is the state utilities regulator, has looked into the possibility to use biomass for power generation and has mandated a pilot effort that has proven to be very effective. This has so far been the only approach shown to be reasonable to dispose of this material; it is scalable and would relatively inexpensively facilitate the critical forest and watershed protection efforts, but the ACC has so far refused to expand this effort. A lot of people, multiple organizations including AZTU, and other state and federal elected officials and the utilities are working on this frustrating refusal issue.

In addition, the USFS is running a lengthy request for proposal process with final bids expected to be selected sometime in the first quarter of 2021 to determine if any private companies can assist with this issue and to determine if 50,000 acres per year for 20 years is even realistic.

This pre-COVID meeting took place on a Rim Country EIS field trip. Participants listen to Alan Hayden of Natural Channel Design Co discuss stream restoration techniques on Canyon Creek in the Tonto National Forest. This Field Trip was organized by AZTU and AZGFD, representatives for the USFS and 4FRI Stakeholders group as part of the Rim Country EIS process.

The USFS is still conducting its Rim Country environmental impact statement (EIS), and there are many questions as to how to roll out its implementation once the NEPA effort is complete. Because AZTU is deeply involved in the 4FRI stakeholder group working on planning and implementation, this is of special interest. With 777 miles of perennial streams and over 1,000 miles of ephemeral streams effected, it is critical work for AZTU. With numerous meetings to discuss plans concerning water resources and forest vegetation treatments, this stakeholder working group will be essential to ensuring Arizona’s forest restoration initiatives are rolled out successfully.

In the meantime, AZTU and the Arizona Chapters are working on other separate but 4FRI associated projects on the East Verde River and the Black River Forest Restoration environmental assessment. In conjunction with the USFS and AZGFD, AZTU hopes that this some of this work can fit under 4FRI’s regulatory approval process, or at least be consistent with the 4FRI desired approach. The hope is that this collaboration will see additional stream restoration work on native Gila trout recovery streams Dude Creek and Chase Creek that are tributaries to the East Verde River in fall 2021. In addition, AZTU also wants to ensure the 90,000-plus acres in the Black River Forest Restoration Project, home to good habitat for Apache trout, are restored with water restoration in mind.

Within the 4FRI footprint, TU helped install these rock barbs to help reduce the impact from major floods and help secure bank structure.

Of course, more funding and project staffing is always needed, but to AZTU, it is imperative to continue working on these key, on-the-ground projects with whatever funding is available to ensure rivers and streams, and the fish, have the resiliency to stand up to climate change and catastrophic wildfires.

AZTU is working diligently to raise awareness for water issues at the forefront of management and implementation plans. By being a willing collaborator, AZTU continues to ensure water is an important piece of the 4FRI efforts for overall forest and watershed health in Arizona.

Stay tuned for more on Arizona’s 4FRI efforts on TU.org.

Click HERE for the full article by Kara Armano on tu.org.