Saving Cragin

Decision clears the way for prescribed burns, thinning to protect vital reservoir

Thanks to the work of Salt River Project and several partners, an environmental analysis has been approved, clearing the way for a massive effort to protect C.C. Cragin Reservoir’s watershed from catastrophic wildfire.

Did you know?

  • C.C. Cragin Reservoir is one of seven reservoirs managed by SRP.
  • The Town of Payson has rights to an average of 3,000 acre-feet annually from the 15,000 acre-foot Cragin reservoir.
  • Cragin's watershed has one of the largest concentrations of Mexican spotted owls in Arizona. Forest thinning activities help protect the owl, which is classified as a threatened species, and its habitat.

On July 27, the U.S. Forest Service signed the final decision for the Cragin Watershed Protection Project (CWPP) Environmental Assessment. The decision allows the Forest Service to move forward immediately with prescribed burns and forest thinning across the Cragin watershed, which is unhealthy and severely overgrown. Prescribed and managed burning will occur throughout the 64,000-acre CWPP area, while forest thinning efforts will cover about 37,000 acres.

SRP has been working on the CWPP since 2014, when it, along with the Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Town of Payson and National Forest Foundation, signed an agreement to improve the health and resiliency of the Cragin watershed.

"This partnership came together to expedite the environmental analysis for the Cragin watershed, we got it over the finish line and now we can start moving forward with on-the-ground activities," said Elvy Barton, Senior Policy Analyst, SRP Environmental Services and Sustainability.

The fuel reduction activities will lower the chance of a catastrophic crown fire. Such a fire on Cragin’s watershed would not only destroy the forest and soil but also seriously affect wildlife and infrastructure, including miles of pipeline and power lines, water pumps, a priming tank and a hydropower generating unit.

The biggest concern, however, is that it would put water supplies at risk. Payson's primary drinking water supply comes from C.C. Cragin Reservoir, and SRP shareholders as well as communities in northern Gila County depend on it as well. If a wildfire were to dump ash and sediment into the reservoir, it would be difficult and expensive to provide clean, safe water. The reservoir could even be rendered useless for a period of time.

"Because Cragin is located directly in the forest, a catastrophic fire on that watershed would result in significant impairment of the water supply and damage to infrastructure. The costs would be substantial to utilize the water out of the reservoir," said Bruce Hallin, Director, Water Supply.

Prescribed burns start this fall, but thinning won't start until a contractor is lined up. Hallin said that’s the next challenge. Though the trees can be burned as biomass and used for such things as window moldings, power poles, soil enhancement material and pallets, the existing industry in Arizona is small and limited.

"Our ongoing challenge is trying to attract some fairly sophisticated industry here that can process this material at a much higher scale," Hallin added. "The success isn’t in doing the environmental analysis, even though that’s one of the steps. The success will be in getting the trees thinned."