Christmas trees are recycled as habitat for fish in Saguaro Lake

·5 min read
Volunteers prepare trees for pick up on the shore of Saguaro Lake. The trees will become fish habitat in the reservoir.
Volunteers prepare trees for pick up on the shore of Saguaro Lake. The trees will become fish habitat in the reservoir.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department teamed up with volunteers and Boy Scouts on a recent Saturday morning to drop discarded Christmas trees into Saguaro Lake, about 45 minutes east of Phoenix. But this wasn't the end of the line for these trees. Rather it's a chance at a second life.

The trees will become much-needed fish habitat for the reservoir.

About 50 volunteers assembled on the overcast day to help load hundreds of old trees onto a boat outfitted with underwater sonar. Some participants who volunteered last year attributed the large turnout to the moderate weather.

The trees were dropped in six locations where the lake floor was barren. Cement cinder blocks tied to the base of each tree ensured they would sink to the bottom of the lake.

The assortment of spruce, fir, and pine will create nooks and crevices for the many fish that live in Saguaro, adding structure to their environment. The fish species include bluegill, catfish, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, channel cat, crappies, and yellow bass.

The trees will also create a refuge for smaller fish and plankton, creating an entire ecosystem, said Bryant Dickens, aquatic habitat specialist with the state game and fish department.

Christmas trees are loaded onto the bow of the boat on the shore of Saguaro Lake, where they will become fish habitat.
Christmas trees are loaded onto the bow of the boat on the shore of Saguaro Lake, where they will become fish habitat.

"These lakes are all manmade, years ago, mostly for hydroelectric power and for water retention for the city," said Dickens. "There's a lot of structural habitat already in these lakes, but nowadays, all that has broken down and decomposed and is no longer there. So for fish to thrive, they need structural habitat all throughout the lake."

While AZGFD has been dropping items into the lake to create fish habitat for some time, the Christmas tree project was revived a few years ago, Dickens said. It's part of a program run by the Mesa Environmental Management and Sustainability Department designed to collect trees at drop-off points where owners have thrown them away.

The agency also collects unsold trees from retailers like Home Depot and the city provides access to some of the trees collected through its annual Christmas tree collection program.

"It’s a creative reuse option with positive environmental benefits," said Mariano Reyes, a marketing and communications specialist with the city department.

Collections started when the holiday ended. In addition to creating fish habitat, the endeavor has provided a way to reduce waste by sparing trees from the incinerator and has drawn in local communities in conservation efforts.

This year, Boy Scout Troop 325 from Queen Creek helped raise awareness about the event. Aaron Townsend, one of the scouts, spearheaded an effort to bring in other scouts after reaching out to Dickens, who helped another scout earn his Eagle badge during a previous AZGFD project. Townsend is hoping to do the same with this year's tree drop.

"It's really cool," said Townsend, who's 14. "Having everybody help out in one organized group, not any arguing, just a lot of hard work."

Throughout the morning, Townsend and his fellow scouts darted from boat to shore, helping load trees onto the bow. Once the boat was in deep waters, they helped detangle the knots of string tied between the cinder blocks and tree trunks before dumping the trees into the water.

The trees will stand upright in the water for a while, creating a high-rise-like environment for the fish. Eventually, the needles will fall off and the trunks will sink to the bottom of the lake bed.

Trees are shuttled off to deeper parts of Saguaro Lake, southeast of Phoenix.
Trees are shuttled off to deeper parts of Saguaro Lake, southeast of Phoenix.

“Over time, the smallest pieces will decompose first and start disappearing. And then after about five to six years, all that will be left is the main trunk, plus some of the larger branches,” said David Weedman, aquatic habitat program manager for the state agency. “If they're bigger than your thumb or about the size of your wrist, those branches will be about all that’s left.”

The event also attracted local anglers and fish enthusiasts, who value large stocks of healthy fish. Because Saguaro is a not a natural lake, most of the fish were transported there from hatcheries at one point.

The trees will help maintain an environment that fosters growth and mirrors what the fish would have access to in a natural lake. Being on the Salt River, and a part of Salt River Project's system, Saguaro Lake is mostly always full, guaranteeing that the fish will have water and that fishermen will have a place to recreate.

"This is the second year for that I've done this," said Roger Luth, an anger from Apache-Junction. "And this is just fabulous what they're doing here because these trees will provide protection for the smaller fish."

Weedman echoed some of the benefits to fish and the reservoir. But one of the true bright spots is the ability to bring a community together, he said. By mid-morning, the sun was starting to peek through the clouds as trucks continued to roll in with trees. In total, the agency, with the help from volunteers, dropped 732 trees into the lake on that Saturday.

"I think based on the quantity of trees that were put into lake, the amount of time it took us to do it, the number of volunteers that we had out there, it was a huge success. We got a lot done," says Weedman. "I don't think anybody really had to work super hard because we had lots of hands do the work. And from a fish habitat, standpoint, I feel like it was a success."

Lindsey Botts is an environmental reporter for The Arizona Republic/azcentral. Follow his reporting on Twitter at @lkbotts and Lkbotts on Instagram. Tell him about stories at lindsey.botts@azcentral.com

Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: State agency, Boy Scouts recycle Christmas trees as fish habitat

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