Story of the Dolores: American Whitewater Working to Restore Flows to the River of Sorrows


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Since the late 1980s, when McPhee Dam started diverting the water out of the Dolores River, it’s been a long haul to protect and restore this gem of the Southwest. Today a combination of new federal legislation and a state instream water right have conservation advocates and paddlers seeing the potential for permanent protections of the River canyon…

The river has been found suitable for Wild and Scenic designation (over opposition from irrigated agriculture) since the 1970s. The river now flows at almost a trickle most years, endangering native fish and plants and making this once world-class paddling destination nearly impossible for Americans to experience.

American Whitewater’s Nathan Fey, who has paddled, guided on and advocated for the river since 2001, is finally seeing a few rays of sunshine for this beautiful and endangered river. Fey worked as the coordinator of a local watershed group in the area and founded a non-profit experiential education program in the area, which used the river as a living classroom for local school districts. He’s been working for over 15 years to bring the Dolores back to life, and after years of conflict, he sees a chance for balancing the needs of the river, with those of local landowners and the agricultural community.

In a longtime partnership with the San Juan Citizens Alliance, Fey says that even the slight possibility of legislation that would create a National Conservation Area is motivating entrenched stakeholders to consider permanent protection of the river.

A National Conservation Area, along with innovative planning for flow releases from McPhee Dam, would go a long way in mitigating the impacts of the Dolores Project, completed in 1984. Those impacts weren’t felt immediately because the ’80s were so wet, and there was enough water for fish, families, farms and boaters. The number of irrigated acres in the region fed by Dolores water doubled, and local towns were guaranteed a 100-year supply of water.

But all that changed with the weather and drought that began in 2001. Today, the minimum flow released through the state’s share of reservoir storage is a measly 20 cfs, not even enough to tell the river is flowing.

And with the loss of big spring runoff, the river channel has silted in, and pools where warm water fish would survive the dry summer months have disappeared. Fish habitat has all but disappeared, and the number of boating days has plummeted – from an average of over 3,000 users a year, to less that 120. A recent in-stream flow designation by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, determined in September 2015, will only prevent the impact that more diversions from the San Miguel, a tributary to the Dolores, may have – but won’t do much to restore flows.

As this point, Fey’s long-time partnerships with other conservation and scientific stakeholders in the region have been instrumental in moving past the fish vs. boating conversation, because restoration of flows and habitat for fish are mutually beneficial. So today, 30 years after the dam’s completion, and with the river running at barely a trickle many years, the dialogue on the Dolores is still working to find a solution that works for alfalfa farmers, boaters, endangered native fish, and local communities.

But there is still resistance from water-users in the region, who are using Dolores water to grow three cuts of alfalfa a year in a very arid landscape. The Bureau of Reclamation has also refused to allow any spills until the reservoir is full – a guideline that is inconsistent with the projects federal authorizations.

The possibility of new federal legislation, however, may provide the push needed to get efforts to protect Dolores River values back on track. In light of possible listing of native fish as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, 2016 may be the year of breakthrough and cooperation. “Conservation interests have tried to assure that private property interests are protected under the legislation – it’s a win-win,” says Fey. “To get protections in place, for the benefit of everybody, we need to step out of our entrenched and positional thinking and cooperate with one another. The alternative is expensive, and not good for Colorado’s legacy heritage.”

Meanwhile, river-running filmmakers Rig to Flip are soon to release a great film profiling the Dolores and its history, and spreading the word far and wide about what the river means to paddlers and the local recreation economy, and how innovative farmers could do more with less water.

Read more HERE

Visit Rig to Flip to learn more HERE

Staff Post
Staff Post
Paddlers writing about all things paddling.


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