Fossil Creek, a perennial stream in central Arizona’s Mogollon Rim country, hosts a variety of rare and imperiled species and boasts stunning waterfalls, deep pools, abundant riparian vegetation, and colorful wildflowers. It also flows at an amazing 410 gallons of water per second, and for nearly 100 years was the site of a dam providing power to Arizona Public Service’s Childs and Irving power plants — which significantly dried up all but about a half-mile of Fossil Creek’s entire 14.5-mile length. Today, the power complex is closed, but the environmental damage it inflicted has yet to disappear.
Fossil Creek represents a singular opportunity to fully restore a riparian ecosystem in the Southwest. Less than 1 percent of Arizona’s landscape is riparian habitat, and more than 90 percent of native riparian areas have been lost or heavily degraded. As flows have been restored at Fossil Creek, limestone is naturally depositing once again, creating deep pool and waterfall habitat for several species of imperiled fish — and making the creek the best native-fish restoration area in the state. Native vegetation is regenerating as well, once more providing prime habitat for dozens of unique southwestern plants and animals.
Legislation to designate Fossil Creek as a government-recognized "wild and scenic" river was included in the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, which passed in March of that year, making Fossil Creek the second Arizona waterway with such a designation — the first being a segment of the Verde River (which includes the confluence of Fossil Creek).
After years of grassroots activity, legal notices and intense negotiations, the Center and our coalition partners, including the Yavapai-Apache Nation, prompted the 1999 decision to lower the diversion dam and close the environmentally destructive power plants that took Fossil Creek water away from the stream. Under the terms of the coalition's agreement, the Irving and Childs power plants were decommissioned in 2005, and this extraordinary wild place was planned for restoration by 2010. In 2009, we filed an administrative appeal and a notice of intent to sue over the Obama administration’s failure to protect endangered wildlife — notably the Chiricahua leopard frog — and water quality in the Fossil Creek watershed by allowing livestock grazing on 42,000 acres southeast of Camp Verde. Two years later, the administration’s decision to allow that grazing was overturned in court.
The Center has also worked to protect the habitat of the loach minnow and spikedace, two threatened fishes that had been extirpated from Fossil Creek, and in 2007 our efforts resulted in the momentous reintroduction of the species to the area. We’ve sounded an urgent call for improved management of Fossil Creek by federal agencies as visitation to the area has significantly increased, threatening some of the recent gains, and we’ll continue to work to ensure that this unique and beautiful waterway — along with all the species it contains — is restored to its former state of health.