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Forest thinning closer to ballot

Forest thinning closer to ballot

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Lake Mary Thinning

Paul Summerfelt, Fire Management Officer with the Flagstaff Fire Department hopes that thinning projects around Lake Mary will prevent future forest fires like the Monkey Fire that burned a section of the far shore of the lake in 2007. (Jake Bacon/Arizona Daily Sun)

The Flagstaff City Council is closer to asking voters to approve spending millions of dollars to protect the city's main surface water supply from contamination in the event of a catastrophic wildfire.

In addition to thinning the Lake Mary watershed south of the city, the $10 million bond would pay for treatment of the Dry Lake Hills north of the city, where a wildfire could lead to massive flooding downtown and on the NAU campus.

A majority of the Council indicated Tuesday night they supported moving forward, asking staff to bring back a formal proposal in two weeks in order to decide whether to refer it to the November ballot.

Two-term Councilmember Karla Brewster said Tuesday night she was ready to support the proposal, even though much of the thinning would take place outside the city limits.

"This is a no-brainer, this needs to be done," Brewster said. "Without it, we are playing Russian Roulette with wildfires."

Current plans call for the thinning to start next year if the bond is approved by voters, but it would take several years to treat the two areas entirely, said Paul Summerfelt, the fuel management officer for the city of Flagstaff.

An estimated $4.8 million to $6.8 million would go to thin 6,060 acres in the Dry Lake Hills areas, with predictive models showing a catastrophic wildfire like the Schultz fire could lead to massive flooding, destroying large portions of downtown Flagstaff, the Southside neighborhood and the Northern Arizona University campus.

At least 3,700 acres in the Dry Lake Hills will not be addressed by the Four Forests Restoration Initiative in the next decade.

SEDIMENT AND ASH

As for Lake Mary, a small three-acre patch of charred trees is a reminder of how close the city came to losing one of its main sources of drinking water a few years ago.

Firefighters were able to quickly put out the wildfire across from the boat launch at Upper Lake Mary but the threat remains, said Summerfelt.

The Upper Lake Mary watershed is a critical area, officials say, because it provides on the average 50 percent of the city's potable water supply. A massive wildfire, followed by flooding, would push sediment and ash into the water supply, rendering the area unusable for a number of years.

Summerfelt said the city has studied how it would cope with the temporary loss of Lake Mary, with one report suggesting the city would either need to dig more than a dozen new ground wells or retrofit the nearby water treatment plant with expensive new filtration equipment.

The watershed, covering approximately 30,000 acres, has about 4,000 "highly vulnerable" acres that would not to be addressed by the Forest Service in the next 10 years.

This includes a large tract of land on the slopes of Mormon Mountain.

The bond measure would also work to restore natural springs, streams and channels critical to the water supply, Summerfelt said.

The estimated cost of clearing thousands of acres near Lake Mary is significantly less than for the areas identified near Dry Lake Hills, where city officials believe crews will need to either cut down trees by hand or use helicopters because of the steep slopes. Some hard-to-access areas in the Dry Lake Hills area would be treated with prescribed burns.

FOREST SERVICE KEY PARTNER

The principal partner in this project is the United States Forest Service, which has told the city there are parts of the forest that are critically vulnerable to fire that USFS will not be able to address for at least 10 years.

Other key partners include the Arizona State Forestry Division, Coconino County, Northern Arizona University, the Ecological Restoration Institute and the Greater Flagstaff Forest Partnership.

At least one agency not directly connected to forest health initiatives has also reviewed the preliminary plans, the Economic Collaborative of Northern Arizona. Their executive committee passed a motion in support it conceptually, City Manager Kevin Burke said Tuesday.

If approved by the voters in November, the forest restoration bond would not increase property taxes -- up to $29 million in new bonds can be approved and still leave the secondary rate unchanged by retiring old bonds.

At least two other bond proposals, a new public works yard and new courthouse, are expected to be brought back before the Council for discussion at the July 10 meeting.

The city has not released any details about the other two proposals.

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