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Confluence July 2019, Flagstaff’s Success – An Interview with Paul Summerfelt

Paul Summerfelt

Everyone recognizes that we can’t let this work go – no one is coming to our rescue. We can partner with others, but we can’t expect others to protect us.

Almost seven years ago, Flagstaff voters did something remarkable: they voted overwhelmingly to approve a bond measure that designated the city’s forested watersheds as water infrastructure and funded large-scale restoration in those forests. The Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project was born from that bond measure, and we’ve been big fans ever since.

Paul Summerfelt with the City of Flagstaff helped lead that effort, and still does. Anticipating another epic fire season, we checked in with Paul last month to see how the restoration work is going, what lessons have been learned, and what’s next.

His answers are inspiring, and particularly useful for other municipalities considering conservation bonds. Paul notes that support for, and understanding of, the connections between forest health, water supply and wildfire are stronger than ever in Flagstaff. Residents, elected and agency leaders are all-in for the continuation of the work, and now are tying it to the city’s climate resilience strategy.

As the pace and scale of source water protection efforts accelerate across the American West, along with the pace and scale of catastrophic wildfire, Flagstaff continues to stand out – seizing the day.


Tell us how the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project is going now, 7 years in? 

The work is progressing at a steady pace, and we are 51% of the way complete. We’ve got another 25% of the project either work is ongoing or contracts are about to be signed for that. One of the very cool things is that our work has enabled us to bring in additional outside funding, in addition to the bond funds. As of the end of last year we have raised an additional $7.2 million from federal agencies, organizations and other entities. 

So we’re feeling really good about our progress; we are 2 weeks from finishing all the helicopter operations, and the steep slope is halfway done. We are working with a lot of the villages on the Hopi and Navajo reservation about moving firewood that way. So there’s a lot going on. 

This early on, are you seeing impacts on water quality and quantity? 

We expect it will take a while to see those benefits. From the fire perspective, we’ll be seeing benefits over the next decade or so. On the water side of the equation, our helicopter and hand thinning work on Dry Lake Hill is important. That area was selected for its fire potential, and a fire there would result in big floods in town. So our work there is well underway. 

Next we are beginning work on Mormon Mountain Lake, which supplies very high quality surface water to Flagstaff. We are diligently exploring ways to fund that work, as well in discussions with City Council and other stakeholders. We’re looking at decisions in Fall of this year and next winter as we move into budgeting season. 

The bond measure passed with so much support, are you still seeing that kind of support among voters and residents? 

Well many people see the work going on, because it’s in areas where people recreate, and support is still very strong. We’ve closed the forest for the steep slope and helicopter work and residents have been largely supportive. Everyone understands what’s at stake, and that this is basically a construction project and takes time. We continue to get really strong support from citizens, elected officials and agency and organizations in town. 

We also see more understanding of the risk of fire, and when people see the kinds of fires they had in California last year, that strengthens the message that this is absolutely critical work. 

How do you see the understanding of the connection between healthy forests and water supply?

Part of the answer to that question turns on the new Flagstaff Climate Adaptation and Action Plan (CAAP), which came out last winter. We jumped into the development of that plan because we saw an opportunity to elevate the forest health, water and wildfire angle – we can make a direct tie there. 

The City Council adopted the plan, and a major component of that plan is forest health. That plan has a lot of traction in the community and in the area. People understand climate issues and recognize the changes that are occurring. They recognize what’s at stake in terms of water and fire, and that there is work to do. Forest health, restoring forests and making them more resilient is very actionable and visible in that discussion and in the plan. All the city departments are using the plan to think about budgeting, and there are a lot of stakeholders in town who aren’t necessarily involved in the FWPP who are involved in the plan and are getting the connections that way. 

How about future funding – what’s next in continuing the work? 

We feel optimistic and determined – there is so much enthusiasm and commitment including among elected officials. So we are going to do it, and we’re looking at the best way to do so. We are exploring a user fee, because that might also help drive water conservation if it’s tiered. Everyone recognizes that we can’t let this work go – no one is coming to our rescue. We can partner with others, but we can’t expect others to protect us. 

For other communities, do you think bonding can be a good strategy? 

There are pros and cons of bonding. It takes an election and there’s a lot of work on that end. But the one thing about the election that carries great weight is that it shows that community members have skin in the game. They are vested in the outcome and that carries weight with other agencies as well. So people who oppose the work aren’t just opposing an agency, but the will of the voters. I’m not sure we recognized that at the time we ran the measure, but it did put it in a different political arena and that carries real weight. 


Paul Summerfelt leads the City of Flagstaff’s Wildland Fire Management Division. Past President of the Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership, he currently serves as the City’s representative in the Four Forests Restoration Initiative and the State Forest Health Council, and is the Project Manager for the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project.  

During his career, he has served in a number of positions on both regional (Type II) and national (Type 1) Incident management Teams, including Operations Section Chief, Plans Chief, Deputy Incident Commander, and Incident Commander. He now serves on one-of-three national Area Command Teams.

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