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We’ve got a crisis.

No doubt about it.

But that doesn’t mean anyone’s going to act quickly.

Unfortunately, the effort to save Arizona’s vital watersheds from wildfires depends on getting rid of mountains of tree scraps, sapling and biomass.

But the refusal of the state, the federal government or the Arizona Corporation Commission to create a market for biomass has for a decade stalled thinning efforts.

And that’s nowhere more apparent than in the long-suffering effort to thin the 64,000 acres of the watershed that drains into the C.C. Cragin Reservoir, which supplies water to both Rim Country and Phoenix.

The dilemma came into sharp relief last week during the latest meeting of the Natural Resources Working Group, a band of loggers, mill operators and local officials struggling to protect forested communities by removing maybe 90% of the small, struggling trees from two million acres of ponderosa pine forests.

“We made it crystal clear we will not take biomass of C.C. Cragin until we have received an extension,” said Brad Worsley, CEO of Novo Power, the only biomass burning power plant in Arizona. Unless he can get a new, long-term contract from Arizona Public Service or Salt River Project, he’ll have to shut down the plant in the next 18 months. That would deal a body blow to already faltering forest thinning efforts.

The local and industry representatives heard a briefing on the dramatic changes in the Forest Service’s approach to the 4-Forests Restoration Initiative — a visionary but snakebit effort to thin more than a million acres of overstocked, fire-prone forests.

The 4FRI planners recently abandoned a decade-long effort to find a single major contractor who could thin 50,000 acres a year and save communities like Payson, Flagstaff, Show Low and Pinetop from the fate of Paradise California — which burned to the ground in the ember storm from a nearby wildfire. The smoke and flames killed 83 people as they fled or sheltered in their homes.

The new plan for 4FRI will use $54 million a year in Forest Service funding and existing local industry to first thin and restore some 134,000 acres that pose the greatest risks to forested community and infrastructure.

And that includes the 64,000-acre watershed of the C.C. Cragin Reservoir. Studies show that a single crown fire on the steep slopes crowded with up to 6,000 trees per acre could cause erosion that would fill the 16,000-acre-foot reservoir with mud. A crown fire followed by flooding endangers hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure — plus the 3,500-acre-fee Rim Country gets from the reservoir as well as the 12,000 acre-feet that normally goes to the Valley.

So C.C. Cragin’s a top priority: Good news? Right?

Well, maybe.

But don’t forget the biomass problem.

Currently, there’s only one way to economically deal with the wood scraps and biomass that amount to perhaps 50 tons per acre. Burn it to generate electricity.

And there’s only one place to do that: In the NovoPower’s biomass electric plant in Snowflake.

But here’s the problem: Novo Power only exists because the Salt River Project and Arizona Public Service have each contracted to buy about half of the 28 megawatts of electricity the plant produces every year. That’s enough to support between 15,000 and 30,000 acres of thinning projects annually. Those long-term contracts stemmed from an Arizona Corporation Commission mandate that APS generate a certain amount of power from renewable sources — like biomass, solar and wind.

At the time, biomass was cheaper than wind or solar, so the ACC mandate provided the guaranteed market that led to the construction of the NovoPower plant. But now, large scale solar and wind operations provide power more cheaply than burning biomass — especially if you have to load the biomass in a truck and haul it 100 miles or more to the power plant.

So far, neither SRP or APS have signed a new, long-term contract with NovoPower, noted Worsley.

Worsley said he could handle the biomass from the first of the major planned thinning projects on the watershed — although it’s a long drive to the Snowflake plant.

However, he can’t do that until SRP and APS give him a new long-term contract. Without that guarantee of a market for the power he generates, he’ll have to shut down the plant, he told the working group.

Worsley made a provisional bid to handle the biomass from the initial thinning project in discussions with Tristar, the Forest Service and the National Turkey Federation, which is managing the project.

Still, he doesn’t know where the negotiations stand — or whether Salt River Project will eventually extend its contract – after years of delay waiting for a new, major contractor for 4FRI.

“I have not been on the inside of those negotiations,” said Worsley. “I have simply informed them what I would take for the biomass, which is richer than what I have paid” if he hadn’t been trying to convince SRP to extend its power contract. “They (Tristar) was awarded (the thinning contract) – but they can’t begin biomass without the extension for our facility.”

Elvy Barton, with SRP, also attended the meeting, but stopped short of a commitment to provide the contract extension Worsley said he needs to stay in business. Without contracts from SRP and APS, he said the plant will have to shut down in the next 18 months — dealing yet another body blow to hopes for forest restoration.

“I can’t add anything more than what I’ve already offered up on some of our workgroups,” said Barton. “We are in communications with Novo Power and we’re still working at it. We do recognize that it’s important. In order for us to achieve 50,000 acres of restoration, you have to have a market for biomass material. Right now, bioelectricity is the market option that is available. In order for us to reach that goal, we have to have that available to us.”

And so it goes.

True enough — it’s a crisis — one fire season at a time.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

(1) comment

trevhall93

I looked at the economics of 4FRI long ago and knew it wouldn’t work. The government and enviros decimated the logging infrastructure for one. It is two high risk for banks to lend and others to invest capital. Also thinning isn’t profitable especially the further into the forest you go. The government either needs to pay companies to thin and divert funds away from fire suppression or let the timber companies harvest more profitable trees while they thin. The agencies who make their money off of big fire and the enviros who hate logging will never allow it. So we will watch our forests burn and watersheds run black.

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