Fossil Creek is an Arizona and national gem. Its water flows in spectacular colors – from the bright blue-green of turquoise to the dark green of deep jade. This now-perennial creek provides impressive riparian habitat within an arid landscape. Red tailed hawks and common black hawks soar and nest above Fossil Creek’s waters, where otters and beavers frolic, while javelina, mountain lions and other mammals feed on its shores and in the surrounding areas that survive solely because of the creek.
In March 2009, Fossil Creek was awarded federal designation as a Wild and Scenic River. With the public enjoying and protecting the creek responsibly, the creek can continue to meet the high standards of this designation.
Fossil Creek is within the Verde River Watershed. Its headwaters are fed by Fossil Springs, which are located about 5 miles west of Strawberry, Arizona. From the springs, on floor of the remote and ruggedly scenic Fossil Creek Canyon, you look nearly straight up about 1,600 feet to the top of the Mogollon Rim. Some have found this series of crystal clear springs to be the finest set of springs in Arizona. They flow at a rate of 20,000 gallons of water per minute, which equals nearly 29 million gallons per day. The creek, with its impressive waterfalls, continues for over 16 miles before it meets the Verde River.
The creek and canyon received their names from the abundant travertine formations that have built up along the streambed. These travertine rock formations are rare in Arizona. They are formed by high levels of calcium carbonate in the water, which causes large, fossil-like rock growth.
Fossil Creek has an interesting history—one that teaches us the need to actively protect this important and unique waterway. As with the rest of the Verde River Watershed’s riparian areas, Fossil Creek has a long history of human habitation, dating back thousands of years. The area has a number of Dilzhe’e (Western Apache) cultural sites. The Dilzhe’e lived along the creek for generations, and several families consider this area to be their homeland.
Settlers in the Arizona Territorial period saw the water in terms of how it could help them at that time. By 1900, rancher Lew Turner from the Verde Valley had claimed water rights on Fossil Creek, and soon afterwards plans were made to build a hydroelectric plant, towns, and mining operations in the region. The Childs-Irving hydroelectric facilities were built between 1908 and 1916. When commissioned, the projects significantly dried up Fossil Creek for all but about a half-mile of the approximately 14 miles from the diversion site to the confluence with the Verde River.
In the meantime, the areas around the creek received national protection. Fossil Creek flows through two National Forest Service Wilderness Areas: Fossil Springs Wilderness, designated in 1984, and Mazatzal Wilderness, which was designated in 1964 as one of the original wilderness areas in the nation. Prior to the Wilderness Act in 1964, Mazatzal Wilderness had been established as a Primitive Area in 1938. The Wilderness Act’s definition of wilderness is “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
These Wilderness Areas, though, were not quite complete. They lacked a free-flowing Fossil Creek. This changed in 2005 after successful negotiations were led by a broad-based coalition of the Center for Biological Diversity, Yavapai-Apache Nation, and others. This coalition convinced the power plants’ owners (Arizona Public Service) that everyone would benefit from the decommissioning of the Irving and Childs power plants and restoring the environment to its prior perennial state. The creek is now perennial again, but work on restoring the ecosystem is still in progress.
In March 2009, Fossil Creek became the second Arizona waterway to be designated a Wild and Scenic River . The other Wild and Scenic Arizona waterway is one into which Fossil Creek runs: the lower section of the Verde River. On October 2, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The Act stated “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States that certain selected rivers of the Nation which, with their immediate environments, possess outstanding remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values, shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.” Fossil Creek meets or exceeds the criteria established by the Act on every level.
Today Fossil Creek is free flowing for its entire length. As flows have been restored, limestone is naturally depositing once again, creating habitats of deep pools and waterfalls for several species of native imperiled fish that have been reintroduced into the creek. Fossil Creek now supports populations of six native fish species —headwater chub, roundtail chub, speckled dace, longfin dace, desert sucker, and Sonora sucker. Also, the region now has recreational opportunities that have not been available for over a hundred years.
In recent history, people have not always put preservation as a priority for Fossil Creek. Luckily, we have now started to reverse the serious impacts brought about this disregard. Now we have the challenge to sustain the efforts of those who brought Fossil Creek back to where it is today. Due to the wilderness designations of surrounding National Forest lands, there is no immediate impact from population growth.
Yet we cannot rest on these protections. Fossil Creek and other Verde River watershed waterways still need our help. The more we learn about the beauty of these areas and the potential threats to them, the more we are motivated to help.
Fossil Creek faces two key threats if issues are not managed properly: population growth along the Mogollon Rim and increased recreational use of the Creek and its springs. Population growth, along the Mogollon Rim, can affect surface water quality from surface runoff issues, but it can also simply reduce the volume of water in the creek, even if, for example, no dam is built. This is because of how flowing surface waters are replenished.Surface waters such as Fossil Creek are also fed from groundwater along the high country of the Mogollon Rim. A small part of the water from rain or snowmelt seeps into the ground and below the root zone. Gravity then carries it downward to become groundwater, which fills cracks and other void spaces in the rocks. This process is called recharge. Such water-saturated rock is an aquifer. Gravity causes the groundwater in aquifers to flow very slowly through interconnected voids-from higher elevation to lower elevation. The slow-moving groundwater exits (discharges) to springs and streams, and is an essential source of streamflow. Without that groundwater discharge, Fossil Creek and the Verde River would be dry much of each year.
Most people in our area draw water for their daily use from groundwater. Their wells actually intercept groundwater that was en route to springs and streams. Given this, the more people there are and the less water efficient people are, the less groundwater there is available, not only for people, but also for surface waterways such as Fossil Creek.
Also, with the increased recreational opportunities, the creek is seeing an influx of people seeking the beauty and solitude of this magnificent ecosystem. The additional stresses that this influx brings could have a profound impact on water quality, the travertine formations for which the creek is named, wildlife and endangered aquatic species. To avert these impacts, it is important to educate visitors to use the area wisely and to support state and national agency efforts.
Arizona has not had a stellar history in protecting its riparian habitat, groundwater, and surface waters. Current state laws are insufficient to protect in-stream flow, and designation as a Wild and Scenic River does not guarantee priority on surface water rights. In order preserve this national treasure we will need to be ever vigilant as resource-management priorities change.
For recreation information, including directions and information about reservations and occasional closures, please visit the US Forest Service official webpage on Fossil Creek by clicking here.