During Monday’s informational presentation to the Flagstaff City Council and Coconino County Board of Supervisors, county staff made it clear that the impacts of another fire on the nearby mountains would be disastrous for Flagstaff.
The presentation was focused on the possibility of a blaze on the south and western slopes of the San Francisco Peaks — areas that make up the Upper Rio De Flag watershed that drains through downtown Flagstaff. Engineering firm JE Fuller shared models of potential burn severity for a fire in the particular area, as well as models of potential post-fire flooding. While preliminary, the results of the models have been enough to catch the attention of area leadership.
“It’s ugly, folks,” said Lucinda Andreani, director of the county flood control district. “The gravity of how we manage this issue and the impact it’s going to have on Flagstaff over the long term is significant.”
The modelling covered four different scenarios evaluating fire in three separate areas of the Upper Rio watershed, and a fourth worst-case scenario that evaluated a 21,500-acre fire across the entire watershed.
“It’s a big area to burn, but it’s really not,” said Joe Loverich, project manager for JE Fuller.
For comparison, the 2022 Tunnel Fire burned about 19,000 acres, and a few months later the Pipeline Fire burned an additional 26,500 acres.
Photographer Rachel Gibbons sent in this video of smoke over the San Francisco Peaks as the Pipeline Fire continues to burn on Monday, joined …
Based on the predicted burn severity of this worst-case scenario, the resulting flooding from a 2-inch rain event on the burn scar would send a substantial amount of water through the heart of Flagstaff, “into the Rio, through downtown, across Lone Tree on over to the east side of town,” Loverich said. “We’ve tracked our modeling all the way down to I-40.”
Monsoon storms have brought flooding to several parts of Flagstaff this summer, particularly near multiple burn scars in the area.
Loverich added: “Is this exactly what a fire is going to do? No. But it is a decent representation of what a fire could be in these areas.”
Additionally, the county has begun the process of working with Northern Arizona University’s Economic Policy Institute to develop an estimate of how such a scenario would economically impact Flagstaff. The estimate will include costs such as remediation, lost property values, flood damages, tourism revenue losses, sales tax revenue losses and more.
Based on similar economic impact studies, such as the one produced to evaluate a fire and flooding event on Bill Williams Mountain, county forest restoration director Jay Smith estimated that the economic impact of a large fire on the Peaks would top a billion dollars.
“Probably over $2 billion,” Smith said.
Altogether, the risk associated with this worst-case scenario is enough that county leaders stressed the importance of robust proactive measures, especially in the realm of forest restoration to reduce fuel loads associated with high-severity wildfire.
“Now, what we understand — as we’ve dealt with these fires multiple times now — is that the cost to be reactive to a fire and post-fire flooding costs sometimes as much as 25, 30 times more than if you’re just proactive and you go out and do the treatment,” Smith said.
Proactive forest treatment on the Peaks will be a substantial undertaking involving steep-slope logging — which Smith estimated could take $60 million alone — as well as other forest treatments across the 21,500 acres.
“It could be a pretty high price tag,” Smith said.
To that end, Coconino County has been very active in securing funding for both regional flood mitigation and forest restoration. Recently, it announced that the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management (ADFFM) agreed to allocate about $11 million to Coconino County — which would constitute the 25% match they needed to accept a $50 million injection from the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
It also announced that $42 million will be coming from the U.S. Forest Service for on-forest restoration work, and another $9 million from the Emergency Watershed Protection Programs will fund flood mitigation in Pipeline East flood corridors.
“It has been absolutely essential that we were able to get the federal funding that we got,” said Patrice Horstman, chair of the county board of supervisors.
Though these funds will be spread out among multiple areas affected by fires and floods, Coconino County is prepared to devote at least $30 million to targeting the high-cost, steep-slope forest restoration on the San Fransisco Peaks.
“But to reduce the overall risk of fire in that entire area and reduce the ultimate risk of post-wildfire flooding and impact to the economy, the entire area is going to need to be treated,” Andreani said. “This is going to take a partnership with the district, with the city and the Forest Service, and all the parties are going to have to come forward with funding.”
According to Smith, Forest Service leadership has already expressed alignment with a partnership bent on treating the western slopes of the Peaks.
“They are committed to focusing on the same area,” Smith said. “We’re meeting with them, getting the projects lined up so we can begin this work as soon as possible.”
He added that the county was also looking to engage other partner organizations, such as the ADFFM, the National Forest Foundation, the Nature Conservancy, and even private partners such as Arizona Snowbowl.
“The mountain attracts people to Flagstaff, to our tourism industry,” Smith said. “We want to see [private industry] get involved.”
Historically, attracting industry partners to forest restoration work has been challenging. It was one of the key reasons that the Forest Service had to completely restructure their Four Forest Restoration Initiative in 2021.
“We continue to struggle getting industry established where we can take all these forest products — the live wood and the dead wood that needs to come out to help protect these acres,” Smith said.
He added that he has been working closely with a range of forestry professional and Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute to imagine new ways to use the wood resources harvested from forest restoration.
“We’re opening up every nut, every basket, everything we can to try to solve these problems,” Smith said.
As problems with the current health of the forest are directly related to the century of fire suppression philosophy enacted by settler society in northern Arizona, Andreani noted that the county is also working on “bringing back and reinvigorating” Indigenous practices, such as controlled burns, that were employed to reduce fire threat in the region.
“Almost all the tribes employ these strategies and have that as part of their history,” Andreani said. “And a lot of that’s been suppressed over the years.”
Ultimately, the tone of Monday’s meeting reflected a reckoning with a fact that a new fire on the Peaks would be a substantial threat to Flagstaff’s future.
“We are all-in,” said Flagstaff Mayor Becky Daggett. “Whatever it’s going to take to protect the community from this kind of catastrophic wildfire and resulting flooding.”
Sean Golightly can be reached at email@example.com.
After hearing over three hours of public comment on the topic, Flagstaff City Council approved a resolution supporting abortion access in the city at its meeting Tuesday.
Council had first discussed a potential resolution on abortion at its Feb. 21 meeting in response to a petition it had received in August. Almost 90 residents had signed the petition asking city council to discuss ways it could protect residents who were accessing, assisting with or providing abortion services.
After discussion and an hour of public comment that was mostly in favor of the resolution on Feb. 21, Council had directed city staff to draft a resolution that it would discuss at a later meeting.
The majority of comments at Tuesday’s meeting — 45 of the 65 total — were against the resolution, including religious leaders, local residents and at least one anti-abortion advocate.
City council approved the resolution in Tuesday’s meeting, with six members — Mayor Becky Daggett, Vice Mayor Austin Aslan and Councilmembers Deborah Harris, Jim McCarthy, Miranda Sweet and Khara House — voting for it and only one — Councilmember Lori Matthews — voting against.
“Abortion is never an easy decision and no one ever makes that decision lightly. ... It’s not a decision that should be made in the state Legislature,” McCarthy said during city council’s discussion.
“This resolution states an opinion of us as a council body,” House said. “ ... As we are being presented with this conversation, it is part of our role to engage in that and share that opinion and have these sorts of conversations, as difficult and challenging and nuanced as they may be.”
The resolution is based in part on similar ones passed by city councils in Tucson and Phoenix in 2022 that had expressed dissent with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
Flagstaff’s resolution also expresses opposition to the decision and Arizona laws criminalizing abortion, while “supporting the constitutional rights of pregnant persons, including their access to reproductive health care and abortions.”
It also includes ways it will support Flagstaff Police Department in establishing priorities and policies related to abortion “that consider the need to protect the physical, psychological and socioeconomic well-being of pregnant persons and their care providers.”
The full text of the resolution can be found online.
City attorney Sterling Solomon and councilmembers noted at both meetings, however, that healthcare in Arizona is regulated by the state, and not cities, so the action would make a statement rather than a law.
This, alongside Arizona’s current law, was part of why Matthews said she opposed the resolution.
Abortion is currently legal in Arizona through 15 weeks of pregnancy, though access in Flagstaff is limited. The local Planned Parenthood, for instance, currently offers abortion referrals rather than abortion services.
“I’m surprised we’re still talking about this,” Matthews said. “I respect all of our citizens, their decisions and desires. Your abortion rights are covered. Whether I agree with them or not is irrelevant, and I think the showing tonight of the people that are opposed to a resolution are feeling offended and stating that they’re going to lose trust in our local government in making a political stance that doesn’t have any legal standing in it.”
Other councilmembers disagreed.
“I think part of what was motivating this conversation from folks who wanted to hear from their council and their police department that they’re protected is that [abortion laws] could change,” Aslan said. “ ... We need to make sure our resources are being directed wisely, regardless of what state Legislature has passed into law at any particular time.”
“We have had many courageous conversations in this country over a lot of years; this is not going to be the last one that we have,” Harris said. “I do believe that we have the right to disagree with our legislators and this is the appropriate way to do it. We get to tell them when we don’t like something. ... It does not mean that we give up our rights or our feelings just because we sit in these seats … but I do think that I owe it to the people who voted for me and those who didn’t vote for me to hear what you have to say and make the decision that I think is best. In this particular case right now, I’m supporting this resolution.”
The majority of commenters attended the Tuesday meeting in person. Each was given three minutes to speak.
Many of those opposed to the resolution discussed their own opinions against abortion, with some saying that Council passing the resolution would not be representative of their constituents’ beliefs.
“I believe every person deserves respect and has the right to opinion, but as the City of Flagstaff chooses to endorse or force one opinion over another, when many disagree with that opinion, that’s extremely divisive and pulls apart our community,” said resident Ann Ingram. “I think you’ve seen by the show here that a great deal of people are opposed to some kind of a resolution.”
Many commenters who spoke against the resolution cited religion, specifically Christianity, as their reason for opposing abortion, quoting Bible verses and prayers and using religious language.
The group included a few local pastors: Joshua Walker, teaching elder of Church of the Resurrection (though he said he was here as a “concerned citizen” rather than a pastor), David Berry, senior pastor of Flagstaff Christian Fellowship, Barbara Swee, associate pastor of Northland Christian Assembly, and Jim Dorman, founding pastor (now retired) of Christ’s Church of Flagstaff.
“I’m here today on behalf of myself and the nearly 300 people of my church,” Berry said. “ ... Together we are all in vehement opposition to the proposed resolution 2023-12. The mission of Flagstaff as we’ve been reminded is to protect and enhance the quality of life for all. That certainly includes the most vulnerable among us who cannot defend and speak for themselves, people in the womb.”
Some of those who supported the resolution mentioned the separation of church and state in their comments, saying that to act based on the religious beliefs of other commenters would go against it.
Northern Arizona University professor of comparative cultural studies Diana Coleman also noted that these beliefs were from a subset of one religion.
“We have not heard the religious side, as I’ve heard people say; we’ve heard from a thin, select fringe of conservative Christianity that doesn’t represent all of Christianity,” she said. “ ... We do have separation of church and state, we have the establishment clause. This religious-inflected dialogue is inappropriate to be forced on and also very disingenuous.”
Matthews said the religious views should be heard, however, as they were community members’ perspectives.
“I don’t think that it was about well, this is a religious thing or a God thing, so you need to be shamed into making a decision,” she said. “ ... This is their belief and they are part of the community.”
In his part of the discussion, McCarthy said the question was about who was making decisions.
“Someone [tonight] said there are differing opinions on the issue. Well, that’s obvious. But one side, who would say ‘pro-choice,’ they’re saying, ‘I’m not going to make that decision for you.’ The other side is saying, ‘I want to make that decision for you.’”
Several opposing the resolution referenced their children, some bringing them to the meeting to make their own comments. Others mentioned their experiences with pregnancy, abortion and parenthood from a variety of perspectives, using them to both support and oppose the resolution.
Those who commented in support of the resolution included members of the Flagstaff Abortion Alliance among other local residents. While many used at least part of their time to respond to earlier comments, several also said they supported abortion access as needed healthcare in Flagstaff.
“I do believe we should protect and enhance the lives of pregnant people, parents and children,” said NAU student Leslie Hansen. “A ban on abortion doesn’t do this; it harms many, many lives. ... I know this resolution is just a statement, it won’t change laws, it won’t grant access to abortions, but I think it will show support to people that really need it.”
A recording of the meeting is available online. The item starts around an hour and 10 minutes into the recording while councilmembers’ discussion of the resolution begins at around four hours and 15 minutes.
NATIONAL RENEWABLE ENERGY LABORATORY, Colo. — In Colorado’s quest to transition to renewable energy, the state’s leaders want to take an old-school approach: Drill, baby, drill.
They won’t be prospecting for oil, though, but instead mining the Earth’s underground heat to power geothermal electricity plants. Other Western states are paying close attention.
“Anything we can do to reduce time and cost associated with being able to drill for the purposes of geothermal energy is something that we’re very excited about,” said Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, in an interview with Stateline. “There’s been great interest from other governors in the West.”
Polis, who chairs the 22-member Western Governors’ Association, is spearheading an initiative to increase use of geothermal energy in the region. Last month, the group convened a workshop at the federal National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, bringing together several dozen state and federal officials, industry leaders and utility representatives to discuss the future of geothermal energy.
Backers think geothermal can play an important role in the clean energy transition, but they say its potential won’t be unlocked without government investments, utility regulations and other policies to encourage development and help the industry become more cost-competitive over time. Most of the industry’s U.S. potential for power generation — which relies on underground permeable rock with fractures that contain hot fluid — is in Western states.
The industry has drawn significant interest from oil and gas companies, which see the potential to convert existing fossil fuel wells into geothermal sites and transition their drilling expertise, equipment and workforce to clean energy projects. Development of geothermal projects is currently more expensive than other renewables, but backers note that wind and solar became commercially competitive after decades of government support.
Geothermal plants provide a steady, on-demand source of electricity, known as dispatchable generation. They pump steam or hot water from wells hundreds or thousands of feet underground to power turbines. Some leaders think such projects will complement wind and solar farms, whose production can vary based on weather conditions or the time of day.
“To go all the way to 100% clean at the same time that we’re electrifying transportation, buildings and industry — if you wanted to do it purely through wind and solar, you’d have to overbuild the system pretty significantly,” said Will Toor, executive director of the Colorado Energy Office. “You need something to complement that, to close that last gap, and geothermal is one of the very promising technologies there.”
Energy experts also note that the expansion of wind and solar projects can create land-use conflicts, while geothermal — with a footprint that’s mostly underground — can produce power without threatening forests and farms. However, geothermal drilling has raised some environmental concerns, including the depletion of underground reservoirs and increased risk of earthquakes.
Geothermal plants currently provide less than half a percent of the nation’s power, mostly concentrated in California and Nevada. At present, building new geothermal projects is much more expensive than building other renewables such as wind and solar farms.
But some state and industry leaders think geothermal will have to grow significantly to meet the need for steady, dispatchable power that’s currently provided by natural gas and coal plants. And they point out that geothermal has not enjoyed the same level of government subsidies and investments that helped wind and solar get off the ground.
“No energy technology has scaled up or commercialized without government support,” said Bryant Jones, executive director of Geothermal Rising, a trade association that advocates for the industry. “Geothermal is playing catch-up, and we need policymakers to think about the specific needs of geothermal when they’re looking at energy policy.”
Colorado is taking a stab at those needs, Toor said, with a suite of legislative proposals that will be filed in the coming weeks. Among the state administration’s proposed bills is a “clean firm” standard that would direct utilities to invest in dispatchable low-carbon generation, such as geothermal.
The Colorado bill follows a 2021 order from the California Public Utilities Commission that directed utilities in that state to build out more clean energy projects from “firm,” on-demand resources, calling for 1,000 megawatts of dispatchable power projects like geothermal, in addition to cheaper wind and solar.
“With all of these states driving toward 100% grid decarbonization, at some point reliability becomes a massive issue,” said Sarah Jewett, vice president of strategy with Fervo Energy, a geothermal developer. “The rest of the states in the West haven’t felt the pain on reliability in the way California is, but at some point, they will.”
Jewett said the Colorado bill is the first new proposal outside of California to mandate development of “24/7” carbon-free electricity, but she hopes to see similar requirements throughout the region.
Colorado lawmakers will consider another bill this year to establish a regulatory process for approving geothermal wells.
“We basically want to approach geothermal permitting in a way that’s more analogous to oil and gas permitting than it is to traditional power plant permitting,” Polis said.
Rocket Solar compiled a list of some of the side benefits of clean energy using a variety of government, nonprofit, and academic sources.