Several new watershed restoration and monitoring projects are taking shape around northern Arizona’s forests, but the impetus behind them isn’t a nonprofit, municipality, university or the Forest Service. It’s Salt River Project, the utility that provides water and power to hundreds of thousands of people in and around the Phoenix metropolitan area.

The projects, which aim to increase understanding and preservation of the state’s ponderosa forests, indicate the vital role these landscapes play in the utility’s power and water operations.

One Nature Conservancy study found that northern Arizona’s forests provide half the runoff in watersheds that supply the Valley’s more than 4 million residents with drinking water and electricity. Ensuring those ecosystems are functioning well and doing everything possible to reduce wildfire risk is not only a commitment to environmental stewardship, but a business investment, said Bruce Hallin, director of water rights and contracts with SRP.  

“We're trying to make the connection between forest health, watershed health and the health of the Valley's water supply,” Hallin said.  


Visualizing flows

SRP’s 3-year-old flowtography project is the more established of its two forest health and monitoring efforts. The technology is surprisingly simple: time-lapse cameras installed around a watershed that take photos at 15-minute intervals 24 hours a day, seven days a week, adding up to more than 35,000 pictures a year. The final result is a visual of waterways as they experience dry weather, torrential downpours and everything in between. So far, 100 cameras have been installed across Arizona watersheds, including upper Lake Mary.

One set of photos from the flowtography cameras show a patch of forest near upper Lake Mary coated in a layer of snow on Jan 8. Just five days later, the images show the area’s mellow terrain inundated by a small creek of snowmelt as it rushes downhill.

Conventional data collection via stream gauges can spit out reams of numbers, but it’s the visual impact of seeing a gentle slope of forest floor turn into a rushing creek that makes the flowtography project so valuable, said Lee Ester, manager of water measurement for SRP.
“A picture is worth a thousand words. You and I can relate to an image,” Ester said. “We can talk about a site relative to an image and it will be a different discussion than people have been able to do in the past. You can't argue with pictures.”

The cameras can also provide a broader view of the watershed, including forest density, understory growth, wildlife patterns, streamflow characteristics and even shadows cast by the trees, Ester said.

From the perspective of Northern Arizona University, which is partnering on the cameras near Lake Mary, the time-lapse photography of the watershed will help researchers compare surface water runoff before and after planned forest treatments like mechanical thinning and prescribed fire, said Sharon Masek Lopez, a watershed restoration research specialist at NAU.

The cameras store a massive amount of information but are less expensive and easier to install than stream gauges, making them well-suited to monitor remote sub-watersheds, said Brad Hill utilities director with the City of Flagstaff, which is another partner on the project. The city is already looking at installing more cameras in the Lake Mary area.


Making forests healthy

On-the-ground forest restoration is the goal of SRP’s other new project in the region. The company is starting the Northern Arizona Forest Fund to finance restoration work on national forest lands. The fund will target projects that have been on the Forest Service’s to-do list but haven’t been completed due to a lack of funding.

Projects in the upper Beaver Creek watershed and the Oak Creek area near Sedona are first up for funding. The Beaver Creek work will include hand thinning on about 150 acres and prescribed fire on about 1,000 acres. The Oak Creek project aims to improve more than 20 miles of roads in the Oak Creek watershed by installing better drainage structures, repairing gullies and ruts and improving pullout areas. The goal is to prevent sediment flow into waterways and discourage drivers from widening roads or creating new ones.    

The projects will cost a total of about $500,000 and are slated to begin this spring. In both cases, Forest Service or contracted crews will do the work.  

SRP’s primary job will be to seek investments from its customers and other partners. The National Forest Foundation, a congressionally-chartered nonprofit created to benefit national forests, will administer the fund.


Private dollars for public good

SRP’s projects involve collaborations with the city of Flagstaff, Northern Arizona University, the nonprofit National Forest Foundation and the Forest Service, representing the type of public and private partnerships that those involved say are a promising step for the future of forest health.

The concept of companies and individuals donating to ecological restoration projects is starting to pop up around the country, said Marcus Selig, southern Rockies regional director with National Forest Foundation. Utility companies on Colorado’s Front Range have made big investments in restoring landscapes that make up their watersheds and Coca-Cola has pursued hundreds of community water projects focused on goals like improved access to water and sanitation and watershed protection.

SRP’s forest fund follows along the same lines but is unique in how it seeks to connect private businesses and individuals with the broader watershed, Selig said.

It’s an opportunity to attract money from people in the Phoenix area who benefit from the forest and water from forest, but may not be contributing to its overall wellbeing, said Diane Vosick, director of policy and partnerships at NAU’s Ecological Restoration Institute.

Heading into the future, efforts like SRP’s are going to be essential for restoring areas in the forest like springs and steep slopes that serve important ecological roles but aren’t valuable to the logging industry, said Wally Covington, ERI’s director.

“Otherwise, we’re not even going to get 10 percent of the job done from a conservation value point of view,” Covington said.

Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or