To Love the River of Sorrows

Saving the Dolores requires humble perseverance from us all

Rica Fulton
Sep 6, 2018 · 10 min read

The Dolores River in Southwest Colorado is one of those places that demands reverence. Towering canyons painted with desert varnish rise above old-growth ponderosa pines; a distinct humming of past human civilizations is undeniable. Imposing canyons have barred humanity from settling right on the river banks in many sections of the lower Dolores so fish, bighorn sheep, birds, deer, bears, and a panoply of other creatures pretty much get the riparian kingdom to themselves; emulating true wilderness characteristics. Last year enough snow fell in the San Juan Mountains to produce what’s becoming a rare event for the Dolores — enough water to restore the river’s function, habitat and recreational opportunities. 2018 has been quite the opposite. What has this dismal snowpack meant for the Dolores? We had to see for ourselves.

Left: Within the Dolores Canyon WSA, Cody Perry — Rig to Flip. Right: The Dolores River Basin, flowing north towards the Colorado

It’s been especially smoky in the West this year, and the Dolores River Canyon in August was no exception. With the BLM sign for the Dolores Canyon Wilderness Study Area near Little Gypsum Bridge barely visible from the dirt road behind overgrown vegetation, we stopped with the mission to get a first-hand account of how the Dolores was looking. We tossed on some backpacks and followed a two-track that within a few minutes turned into an overgrown game trail. Dried-out grazed native grasses, willows, and Service Berry clearly serve as food sources for larger mammals and scratched my legs as we walked towards the river. Massive sandstone walls towered above us as we meandered north following the river channel, a notable lack of bugs and aquatic species in the inches of water making up the river. Huge grains of salt characteristic to the river protruded between cobble beneath our feet directly adjacent to the river — maybe the bighorn love it.

Left: Entering the Dolores Canyon WSA, Image Cody Perry — Rig to Flip. Right: Large salt crystals were abundant directly adjacent to the river channel in this section.

August flows have always been low in the canyon, this is nothing new. Native fish have likely found some deeper pools to wait out the dry months with an arcane knowledge of food sources; age-old ecological instincts far beyond our grasp. We’re well aware the Dolores is the epitome of resilient — and we love it for that. But we’re still concerned about the lack of spring peak flows this year crucial to native fish spawning — and the fact that the river was higher on that day in August than the majority of the preceding days this summer. We walked through a spot serving as a camp for boaters last year, and found willows and bear tracks with veins of salt embedded in the mud; no explicit signs of the vibrant boating season last year.

Left: The river channel and floodplain directly in the Dolores Canyon WSA. Right: saline bear tracks by the river’s edge, images by Cody Perry — Rig to Flip.

Some years the Dolores roars to life, inundating floodplains and forming enormous whitewater features; but in dry years — like this one — the river is muted; appearing as scarcely more than a trickle. In 1986, the federal Dolores Project was completed: a massive public works project including the construction of McPhee Dam and nearly 90 miles of ditches and lined canals. Ever since then water has been diverted onto farmland in neighboring Montezuma County and sent down to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Towaoc, fulfilling long-overdue water rights. Insufficient flows are released into the canyon needed to nurture downstream ecosystems and for boaters to utilize, except in years with remarkable snow pack. In the relatively short period of time the dams been around irrigators have certainly benefited — but building dams doesn’t get you more water in the same way that opening a bank account doesn’t get you more money.

The thing about the Dolores is that it’s the epitome of overallocated — in a similar way the greater Colorado River is, but on a sub-basin scale so the annual impacts are locally discernible. Most of the rich irrigable lands are in the adjacent San Juan River Basin, so pretty much all of the water is sent via pipelines and canals out of McPhee and into alfalfa and corn fields with no return flows back into the Dolores River. The fish are allocated some water on paper, but are subject to the same shortages as irrigators and industry, and when you crunch the numbers, only about 10–12% of the natural flow ends up downstream many years. A river that consistently lacks 90% of its natural flow is inherently going to transform the downstream environment. Not to mention the impacts an altered flow regime has on the river, which affects cottonwood regeneration, fish spawning, and other ecosystem functions. Bleak climate projections for the Dolores subbasin and the greater Colorado River Basin suggest that the situation isn’t getting any better, either.

Last year, boaters from all over the country flocked to the Dolores River to experience what’s been described as one of the top three river trips in North America. It was all anyone in the western boating community was talking about — the longest spill in ten years. Sixty-eight days boasted “boatable flows,” ample time for folks across the country to come taste the rare exquisiteness of the place. Water managers and otherwise touted the successful collaborative nature of the spill release, everyone was happy for the most part — a framework was being set for future years with ample snowpack. The river and everyone who’s reaped in her bounty was elated, with good reason.

Bedrock Boat Ramp in the 2017 boating season — Cody Perry, Rig to Flip

2018 has been an entirely different story. The last time I looked at the USGS flow gage at Cisco, before our trip down there, flows at the confluence with the Colorado River was only 8.9 cubic feet per second (cfs) — the average flow for this day based on a 31-year record is 291 cfs. At Gateway, below the confluence with the San Miguel the “river” only had 0.05 cfs, and upstream at Bedrock the flow is too low one of the gages wasn’t detecting any water at all. Water temperatures have been over 90 degrees — and one doesn’t have to be a scientist to conclude that fish probably aren’t doing well.

Comparing spring flows into the Colorado River near Cisco, Utah between 2017 and 2018 is dramatic. The peak in 2017 was over 4000 cfs, while in 2018 the river peaked at just over 300 cfs for 12 hours, which is telling of the lack of spring McPhee releases, but also the extreme drought and subsequent low flows in the un-dammed San Miguel Basin.

McPhee Reservoir has just hit historic lows, despite being full at the beginning of this water year, and the river has suffered because of it. It’s no one person’s fault — the situation we’re in now is nested in centuries of living in a harsh landscape and just trying to survive. But we think we can do better for the river, and for ourselves — the river knows how to be dynamic and resilient, why can’t we?

McPhee Reservoir in August 2018

In an attempt to present platforms for solutions, I outlined a few policy mechanisms and otherwise to highlight tools stakeholders might utilize when considering McPhee operations, allocation, and designations that can help the lower Dolores in the future. As part of the greater Colorado River Basin, and a river in the United States, certain laws and water delivery obligations have the ability to trump local water rights and perhaps direct control, though the precedent for state control is still dominant (and should be, to an extent). Stemming from the concern of increased federal control are three factors that I see as having the potential to drive collaboration and consensus-based management moving forward.

NCA Designation

In 1977, the lower Dolores River was deemed eligible for Wild and Scenic River (WSR) designation status below McPhee Dam because of its “outstandingly remarkable values” (ORVs). Assuming McPhee would be built, The BLM stated in the recommendation that the designation would “ensure that a live streamflow [would] be maintained below McPhee Dam.” Because local water users continue to be weary of a WSR designation, a 2007 management plan declared that water managers could utilize other mechanisms to preserve the ORVs. The proposed solution to this would be the creation of a more dynamic and individualized BLM National Conservation Area (NCA) in the lower Dolores. Draft legislation has been outlined, but current efforts have been stalled because a lack of consensus from certain counties. Within the draft, collaboration between stakeholders is a central theme in the creation of a management plan — and much progress has been made regarding this effort. It will probably continue to be a central tool in more dynamic management in the future, especially if enough folks support some form of the designation.

Inclusion into the Endangered Fish Recovery Program

The Upper Colorado River Basin Endangered Fish Recovery Program (Recovery Program) is a collaborative federal program administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service that serves as Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act(ESA) compliance for a few thousand water projects in the Upper Basin. The four fish in question are the humpback chub (though recently delisted), bonytail, Colorado pikeminnow, and razorback sucker. A brand-new Reclamation-driven study was just released that acknowledges the presence of the Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker in the lower reaches of the Dolores below the confluence with the San Miguel. Currently, the Dolores Project ESA compliance falls under the Gunnison River’s Aspinall Unit Record of Decision (ROD), which seems like a bit of a stretch — i’d argue Reclamation should eventually complete a new EIS (the current one is from 1977) and subsequent ROD — one that actually focuses on the Dolores River since McPhee has been built.

The presence of the flannelmounth sucker, and other native fish are relatively plentiful, as noted in the Lower Dolores 2017 McPhee Reservoir Managed Release Ecological Monitoring and Evaluation Summary, but deserve careful management to not be listed themselves. Main takeaways from the new 2018 Reclamation Study is that more scientific information is needed, native fish likely rely on the San Miguel for about 67% of the flows, and therefore the program is unable to conclude if McPhee operations are negatively impacting native fish. The implications to management are uncertain at this point, but the Recovery Program certainly has the ability to influence dam operations as we have explicitly seen with Flaming Gorge Dam on the Green, Navajo Dam on the San Juan, and the Aspinall Unit on the Gunnison.

Side note — the Recovery program and a handful of other monitoring programs in the Colorado River Basin have just devastatingly lost their funding from Glen Canyon hydropower revenues, so it’s anyones guess as to the future of the Recovery Program, as well as the Glen Canyon Adaptive Management Program.

Compact Call

While individual watershed implications are still uncertain, a potentially commanding tool regarding water delivery in the Dolores River is the inevitable Compact call. A call may occur because the Upper Basin states are obligated via the 1922 Colorado River Compact to deliver 75 million-acre-feet to the Lower Basin every ten years, as well as their share of Mexico’s allocation. In times of extended drought, like the one we’re currently in, the Upper Basin may have to cut back on their annual share in order to ensure the higher-priority Lower Basin receives their water first. With Lake Powell and Lake Mead at 48% and 38%, respectively and essentially being managed as one reservoir via the 2007 Interim Guidelines, which mandate a balancing-tier operational strategy, the Upper Basin will more than likely need to cut-back in order to make the required deliveries very soon.

The state of Colorado is using more than their share of allocated Colorado River Basin water, so the Western Slope Water Conservation Districts have been moving forward with a risk study that examines what water could be sent down to Lake Powell. The findings so far, lump the Dolores with the San Juan and target the larger Colorado River Storage Project Act facilities without mention of McPhee. MVIC and the Tribe hold water rights that pre-date the Compact, which put the Dolores Project as a whole in a good place, as users with rights after 1922 will likely be first to face cuts based on preliminary discussions. The ambiguity, however leaves room to question what water, if any, may someday be called from McPhee since it is a federal project, and if that were to happen, how can the releases be managed in an equitable and dynamic way?

Where did all those people who loved the Dolores last year go? Why does collaboration only work when we have enough water? Farmers dependent on alfalfa are struggling to make ends meet — the lack of water hurts their livelihood alongside boaters, and of course the river itself. Irrigation is incredibly nuanced, and solutions have to come from folks who understand that. To love a river means respecting it when it gives you recreational thrills and bountiful water to enjoy, but it also needs to mean loving it when it doesn’t have anything to give. When she’s low and stressed we need to be vigilant and come up with real, diverse, solutions that consider the bonded needs of humans and the river.

Center pivot irrigation and Dove Creek Canal east of Cahone in August of 2017

The contention that defines water issues in the west is inevitable, but if the Dolores can carve through sandstone, then i’m confident we can come together as a community to manage the region’s most vital resource. Restoring a semblance of a natural flow regime — ensuring some spring peak flows, and embedding a more dynamic vocabulary to future operational plans would be a huge step in the right direction. Healthy rivers mean healthy communities, and the love the Dolores evokes in so many people tells me that we can foster solutions that lead to a more resilient basin, without sacrificing rural ways of life.

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