As summer camping season reaches full swing, tourists and Arizonans are lamenting over closures to areas of our national forests. Restrictions to hugely popular recreation areas such as Fossil Creek or C.C. Cragin Reservoir have been imposed because of the high risk of wildfires.

When U.S. National Forest officials announced in May that they would temporarily close large areas of our national forest lands because of extreme wildfire conditions, it signified much more than an inconvenience to summer vacation plans.

The forest closures are also a clear indication that our forests are at risk and more needs to be done — immediately — to protect our communities, ecosystems, wildlife and water supply that are all a part of our forested lands.

When folks turn the tap in their homes, many do not realize the water that flows to our homes and businesses essentially comes from our national forests. Unfortunately, our forests are overburdened. Tree densities are excessively high and these unnatural conditions create unhealthy trees and forest conditions with extremely high fuel loads to potentially feed devastating and catastrophic fires.

Re-establishing healthy forests is critical to maintain and protect the health of the Valley’s water supply. Unfortunately, the forest closures are needed to lower the risk of the next large catastrophic wildfire.

Arizona is in the midst of the worst drought on record. The forests are dry and overgrown, which is a recipe for disaster. With plenty of fuel ready to burn, one unintended spark in the forest could have devastating impacts. Catastrophic events such as the Rodeo-Chediski and Wallow fires are stark reminders of the widespread damage of these fires.

From the loss of property and wildlife to impacts to the water that feeds Salt River Project’s reservoirs with ash, organics and heavy metals, these fires are having life-long impacts. Runoff following a wildfire also carries enormous amounts of sediment. The sediment then accumulates in our reservoirs, lessens the reservoirs’ storage capacity and essentially reduces the drought resiliency of our water supply.

The forest closures are a symptom of a larger problem: The need to reduce tree density and re-establish these forested lands to a more natural condition. It is imperative that we accelerate treatments to thin the forests. The closures serve as warning signals that the sooner we expand the forest-products industry in our state to thin our forests, the fewer forest closures will occur.

SRP’s very history is based upon protecting the forested lands to safeguard the watershed. Late in the 1880s Valley farmers, who later formed SRP, petitioned Congress to set asides lands within the watershed to protect the water supply. These lands became today’s national forest lands, and that primary purpose to protect the water supply remains in place today.

Because of what is at risk, SRP is taking a more proactive approach in these efforts to restore forests and protect the watersheds. In partnership with the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Forest Service and the state of Arizona, work is now being done to merge resources and develop innovative solutions to attract industry and increase the rate of forest restoration.

Our goal within the next year is to develop cost-effective solutions that attract forest-product industry investment and create well-paying jobs in rural Arizona.

The forest closures and restrictions will remain in place until the return of the annual summertime monsoon moisture. The success of our efforts to restore the forests to a more natural condition will mean future forest closures may be less frequent or not necessary.

SRP, together with many other stakeholders, is committed to being a good steward of our forests, watersheds and the reservoirs and water system that link and depend upon the health of these forested lands. Our biggest worry when visiting our forests should be where to find the idyllic campsite or areas to hike, hunt, fish or view wildlife — not a catastrophic fire.

To learn more about SRP’s involvement in healthy forests, visit www.srpnet.com/forests.

Bruce Hallin is the Director of Water Supply for SRP and has more than 35 years of experience in the water and power utility business.

(2) comments

Informed Consent

The article mentions heavy metals collecting in SRP reservoirs. Mercury would be one of those. Mercury was deposited in our forest biomass and soils from the precipitation of the smoke stacks of our coal fired power plants. So, when the trees burn and the ash and soil migrate down to the reservoirs, the mercury ends up in the SRP water supply and accumulates in our rivers and lakes. That is where you hear about certain water bodies in northern Arizona that have high amounts of mercury in various fish species. But it is not just mercury that is washed down into the reservoirs. The counties in northern Arizona where these forests are located are also designated as Radiations Exposure Compensation Act counties RECA because they received the lion's share of radioactive waste from the above ground atomic bomb testing performed at the Nevada Test Site back in the 1950's and the 1960's. Just as the mercury was deposited in our forests, so were these radioactive wastes. Those of note are Cesium 137 with a half life of 30 years, Strontium 90 with a half life of 28 years and Plutonium 239 with a half life of 24,000 years. A simplified explanation of half life is to cut an apple in half and 30 years later cut one of the halves into two pieces, meaning that every 30 years half of what is left has expended its radioactive energy. During a fire these radionuclides are resuspended into the air as gases or particles and become soluble in the ash. For example, cesium 137 has a boiling point of 670 degrees centigrade. But full recovery of cesium as be seen in as little as 400 degrees centigrade. Forests fires can have temperatures in excess of 1000 degrees centigrade. However, temperatures ranging from 100 to 600 degrees centigrade are more common. So when the smoke from wildland fires falls on northern Arizona, these radioactive wastes rain down on us just as they originally did in the 1950's and 1960's.
So what does this all mean to those of us living here? Well, first of all we need to educate ourselves on this topic because there are many questions yet to be answered. However, there are certain givens. Ionizing radiation exposure is cumulative. That means continued or chronic exposure adds up over time and damages our DNA. You cannot compare a dental x-ray or an airplane trip to these exposures because the particles that are ingested or breathed in can lodge inside of our bodies and continue to irradiate the surrounding tissue. The longer you are exposed to it the greater the damage to DNA. Also, the greatest exposure from the original fall out was linked to the ingestion of these particles. That is the ash that fell on the vegetation that was eaten by humans and livestock. For example, dairy products. However, exposure was also accomplished through breathing, and physical proximity. And finally, ash concentrates these radionuclides to a greater degree than they were in their original tree, ladder fuel or forest litter.
Unfortunately, we have yet to grapple with these questions. The FS issued a pamphlet entitled, "Four Forest Restoration Initiative:Prescribed Burns and Radiation" which is full of inaccuracies, starting with whether Cesium 137 can be resuspended in wildland fires. The study that they based their opinion on was the Cerro Grande fire of 2000. That study was designed to decide the risk assessment of whether the radioactive waste stored in containment structures at Los Alamos Nuclear Labs had been effected by the nearby fire. It was not designed to assess chronic exposure to radionuclides from wildland fire. The lab that was hired to due the testing issued long statements of the inaccuracy of their assessments for radioactive substances because their equipment was designed for longer testing periods and with more samples. Also, the downwind communities complained that the smoke monitors where not stationed where there was the heaviest exposures.
Whenever the forests surrounding Chernoble catch fire, Europe becomes alarmed and sends help to put them out and their scientists immediately start testing for Cesium 137 showing up in their milk and game. So, what is the difference between Chernoble CS 137 and our Cesium 137? Well, there is 25 years between the NTS bomb testing and Chernoble's melt down. But NTS exploded 200 above ground atomic bombs. NTS released far more CS 137 and presumably more strontium and plutonium.
Why ask these questions? For the same reason we should have asked more questions before exploding all those atomic bombs. Because we don't want to be lamenting another downwinder situation. This time, courtesy of our poor forest management. Maybe if we were honest with our citizens the first time, they would have said that they understood the need to protect our national security, but that they would only agree to 50 bombs instead of 200 because they were willing to only sacrifice one quarter of their loved ones for the cause. Maybe this time we could find ways to keep this biomass in its solid form where it is the least harmful. The ultimate answers are beyond this writers wisdom. But the one thing I am sure of is that our citizens have a right to full and informed consent this time around..

BlueSky

I have written about the following information before and just wanted to share again why it is so important that we extinguish wildfires immediately and stop the massive practice of control and slash pile burning.

In 2001 the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research conducted a study with Hans Friedli and Larry Radke. They collected foliage and ground litter samples from seven forests across the continental United States. These samples were set alight at a U.S. Forest Service fires laboratory. Their sensors detected large amounts of mercury. The samples released 94 to 99% of all the mercury stored in the foliage. “All the coniferous and deciduous samples contained mercury at levels ranging from 14 to 71 nanograms per gram of fuel.”

Mercury is dangerous when it ends up in waterways, where it can transform into methyl mercury and move up the food chain and become more concentrated. Arizona lakes such as Roosevelt, Tonto Creek, Soldier Lake and Upper and Lower Lake Mary already contain mercury warnings that fish are not safe for consumption. A study by Joseph Ryan found that forest fires near Durango Colorado could be responsible for unlocking the mercury trapped beneath the soil in the San Juan National Forest. Thus, allowing mercury to wash into the Vallecito Reservoir. With the Arizona monsoon season in full force can one not be concerned where all this mercury is ending up.

Based on the increasing likelihood of wildfires, drought, and the hazardous substances released during a prescribed burn or a forest fire, alternatives to prescribed burns need to be sought and implemented by the Forest Service. Safer alternatives include logging for fire breaks, chipping, thinning, and goat/cattle grazing. With the windy, dry climate of the southwest, air tankers need to be positioned at key locations in our forests to immediately extinguish wildfires.

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