The San Francisco Peaks appear to be as parched as the surrounding high desert landscape.
It may surprise some people that there are springs hidden in the forests throughout the small mountain range.
And in theory, there’s plenty of water for the animals that make a home in the Peaks, and perhaps even for the people who visit.
The biggest of these, Leroux Spring, has appeared bone dry for almost a century because its water has been diverted for other uses.
Lately, a handful of local activists have been working with the Forest Service on a plan to unleash the spring’s flows.
Leroux Spring is a short walk through the woods from Snowbowl Road north of Flagstaff.
At its slowest rate, water flows from the spring at about five gallons a minute – that’s about the volume of an average garden hose.
More often it’s gushing out twice that fast, more like a bathtub faucet at full blast.
But walk past the place where the spring flows out of the ground, and you won’t even hear a trickle.
That’s because for the past 100 years or so, the spring has been forced into underground pipes to use elsewhere.
It was originally used as a watering source for the earliest settlers. The first military expeditions that came though in the 1850s, first recorded use of using the spring. When the homestead was developed was probably when it was first channeled and put to beneficial use for cattle, irrigation for crops.
Shannon Clark is retired from the Coconino National Forest, where he worked as a facilities engineer.
Part of his job was to oversee all the drinking water systems in the forest.
Leroux Springs came under his watch because its water is piped these days to the nearby headquarters of the hotshot firefighters.
Since retiring, Clark has teamed up with Steve Monroe, an eco-hydrologist.
Together, they regularly hike up to the spring to measure the flow.
The technique is simple: one guy fills a hand-held bucket, and other guy uses a stopwatch to see how long it takes.
Monroe says the spring responds vigorously to changes in precipitation higher up the mountain, but it’s always producing.
“What we’ve seen is that the spring flow fluctuates during the year and from about 10 to even less, sometimes 5 or 6 gallons per minute as 30 or even sometimes 40 gallons per minute in some of the wetter years," Monroe said.
Even at its lowest level, there’s plenty of water to supply a large storage tank and a stock pond at the hotshot headquarters.
Records have shown that on highest use days, the hot shots are only taking about 7 percent of the spring’s flow.
And that gave Monroe and some local activists an idea.
“With that recognition, the Friends of the Rio group began talking with the Forest Service, and we learned that the Forest Service was in the process of developing an urban interface fuels reduction project, and they were interested in considering including the restoration of Big Leroux Spring in that project," he said.
The project is the Wing Mountain forest restoration project.
Primarily, it will remove small-diameter trees that increase the risk of wildfire.
But since it deals with projects on the surrounding forest, it seemed a fine opportunity to propose another action: twisting a valve at Leroux Spring.
That simple motion would mean that some of the water from Leroux Spring will go to the hot shots, and the rest will flow freely once again.
A draft of the Wing Mountain project will be out for public review this summer, and it could be approved within a year’s time.
Monroe says if the Forest Service gives the green light for restoration at Leroux Spring, it will be an experiment in the truest sense.
“We’re not really sure what will happen if water is released here, because it’s been diverted or controlled for 100 years or more and there’s really no surface flow at this time," Monroe said. "There’s no records of what kind of vegetation or plant/animal species that might have lived here before.”
That also means it could emerge as one of the cheapest restoration projects in history, at least at first.
All they’ll have to do is twist a valve and see what happens.