October 04, 2016

Conserved: Fossil Creek, An Arizona Treasure

Photography | Photo by Dan Sorensen

Last week, Western Rivers Conservancy successfully conserved the last unprotected reach of Fossil Creek, one of two Wild and Scenic Rivers in Arizona. Known for its spectacular travertine pools and crystal-clear aquamarine water, Fossil Creek is a haven for fish and wildlife and a mecca for people who come to escape the heat by taking to the banks and pools of this stunning desert river.

But Fossil Creek wasn’t always a paradise. It was awarded its Wild and Scenic River designation in 2009, after an ambitious restoration effort returned the stream to health, following a century of abuse. For nearly 100 years, Fossil Creek was dewatered by a hydroelectric project and diversion dam that left over 80 percent of the stream dry.

Beginning in 1999, state and federal agencies and restoration groups embarked on what would become the most successful river restoration effort in the Southwest. In 2005, the diversion dam was removed, and Fossil Creek became a free-flowing river once again. Four years later, Congress designated all 17 miles of Fossil Creek Wild and Scenic.

Since this remarkable effort, Fossil Creek has fully recovered and again become a oasis for fish and wildlife and a destination for people who visit the river to swim, hike, birdwatch and fish.

Fossil Creek is a tributary to the Verde River, Arizona’s other Wild and Scenic River. It flows from a series of mineral springs at the foot of the Mogollon Rim, on the southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau. Its waters, laden with calcium carbonate, create slick limestone formations that form beautiful pools throughout much of the stream. An oasis in every sense of the word, the creek supports diverse fish and wildlife, including river otters, 15 species of bat, a wealth of bird species and nine species of native warm-water fish. It is also home to a number of rare and imperiled animals like the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, threatened yellow-billed cuckoo and threatened Chiricahua leopard frog.

Fossil Creek is protected along its entire length by both its Wild and Scenic River designation and by the Fossil Springs and Mazatzal Wilderness Areas. Only a small stretch of the river remained unprotected. This changed last week when WRC conveyed 19 acres of riverland to Coconino National Forest for permanent protection. WRC purchased the land from a private seller in 2015 with the goal of conserving the property for its crucial fish and wildlife habitat and to improve the integrity of the Wild and Scenic River corridor.

In recent years, Fossil Creek has become a favorite destination for day trippers fleeing the bustle and heat of Phoenix. As more and more people rediscover and visit Fossil Creek, WRC’s efforts, which placed a strategic property into Forest Service hands, will help the agency more effectively manage recreation up and down the river. In addition to conserving outstanding habitat, our efforts will help the Forest Service minimize human impact on this fragile desert ecosystem and ensure Fossil Creek remains healthy for fish, wildlife and people. 

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