Second of two stories on Clean Water Act regulation in the Southwest. Click here for the first story.
MAYER, Ariz. -- Grapevine Creek appears on maps as a lonely blue scribble on a patch of green federal land.
The creek itself isn't much to see. It's a rocky trail flanked by gnarled cottonwoods as it meanders near the road through this old mining town between Phoenix and Flagstaff.
But looks deceive. This stream makes desert fishermen swoon.
"Any place with water is a special place in Arizona," said Jim Walker, a retired telecommunications executive now volunteering nearly full time with conservation and community groups. "But this one, this one is especially so."
Walker has made multiple visits to Grapevine, driving a narrow, unmarked road lined by thorn bushes that scratch spirograph designs on cars.
Although much of Grapevine Creek is bone dry most of the year -- the spring-fed stream flowing underground -- there are pockets of cool, perennial pools where water burbles up. Those wet oases occur in the Prescott National Forest's botanical area, making the creek a prime location for an Arizona Game and Fish Department effort to re-establish native Gila trout.
Once plentiful in the tributaries of the Gila and San Francisco rivers, Gila trout have been devastated by development, livestock grazing, water diversions, fire and invasive fish. The trout was listed as endangered in 1973, but projects like the one at Grapevine Creek helped prompt the downlisting of the species to threatened in 2006.
Today, intermittent streams like Grapevine offer a vital refuge for Gila trout and other native fish, scientists say.
"Brown trout that are native to Europe have invaded a lot of the same habitats that the native trout live in, but they are invading from downstream," said Jack Williams, a senior scientist with Trout Unlimited. "They are coming in more used to warmer water and bigger habitat, so those intermittent and ephemeral streams and those really smaller streams are natural refuges away from some of these nonnative species."
In a region where the Obama administration's controversial Clean Water Act proposal to place more small streams and creeks under automatic federal jurisdiction has drawn fierce opposition from farmers and development interests, sportsmen are among the proposal's few advocates.
The regulatory proposal deems all tributaries -- regardless of how often they flow -- as worthy of federal protection under a muddled 2006 Supreme Court ruling. These smaller waters provide vital functions, conservationists argue. In addition to streams like Grapevine, they also point to wet meadows, farther up in the mountains, that act like sponges to hold water high in the watershed after rare rains, then slowly release it downstream -- a valuable function both for habitat and for other water users.
"It's been in disarray, what streams have any kind of federal protections around them," said Brad Powell, a regional director for Trout Unlimited and a former Forest Service administrator. "The rule's a giant step in the right direction, at a minimum to provide clarity."
Powell said small streams like Grapevine, where federal protections have been in limbo following the court decision, face an array of threats ranging from construction of roads or housing developments to grazing and off-highway vehicle use.
Along Grapevine's path are posted mining claims made under an 1872 law. Some claims come within 20 feet of the creek.
"This is a perfect example of the threat," Powell said, peering at the laminated paperwork attached to a claim. "There's nothing wrong with it if it's done right, but you have to have an adequate amount of oversight, especially with these amateur miners."
The concern is not just development that would directly affect the creek, but also activities in the dry washes that feed into Grapevine Creek.
Some of those washes, which flow only after rainfall, could also be protected under the administration's water proposal -- a sore point for many industries and lawmakers in the arid Southwest.
Julie Meka Carter, who manages fisheries conservation programs for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said it's hard to generalize about which of these washes matter to a creek like Grapevine.
"It will depend on your location and the magnitude of the impact," she said. "Building activities that are going to disturb the channel could push a bunch of sediment into the stream -- that will take away habitat."
The Army Corps of Engineers' approach to regulating waters and wetlands is not a science, and Carter said she was not familiar with the regulatory regime. But she said the bar the water proposal sets for determining whether a stream is significant -- the presence of a bed, a bank and an ordinary high-water mark -- makes sense to her from an ecological perspective.
When Carter, Powell and Walker reached the perennial section of Grapevine Creek on a late summer hike, a hush fell over the group. They quietly worked their way down from the trail to peer into the pools, hoping to catch a glimpse of a prized Gila trout.
Powell tossed twigs into the pools, tricking the fish to the surface in search of food. Each sighting drew whispered exclamations.
"If you were to look at this whole system and view that it was intermittent and didn't need protecting," Powell said, "you'd be missing something."
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