Fifty years of McPhee

Irrigation dreams began with Dolores Water Conservancy’s ’61 formation

Rocks are loaded up to be taken to the dam. Enlarge photo

sam green/Dolores Star file

Rocks are loaded up to be taken to the dam.

DOLORES – Legend has it that when President Teddy Roosevelt first saw the picturesque Dolores River Canyon just outside the town of Dolores while on a hunting trip in 1906, he proclaimed it a perfect spot for a reservoir.

That was 105 years ago.

But it wasn’t until 50 years ago, Nov. 20, 1961, that the dream of a dam and a reservoir begin to take shape.

That was the day when the Dolores Water Conservancy District formed and a reservoir became closer to a reality.

Hundreds of people gathered earlier this month in Dolores to celebrate the one thing that makes life in this arid section of the Southwest possible – water.

The Dolores Water Conservancy District hosted a 50th anniversary of the formation of the district and the 25th anniversary of water deliveries to farms and towns from McPhee Reservoir at the Dolores Community Center.

“The Dolores Water Conservancy District was formed to try to get the dam built,” said Mike Preston, general manager of the district .

The project was authorized in 1968 and the project began in 1977, after voters in Montezuma and Dolores counties within the Dolores Water Conservancy District approved a repayment contract by an unheard of 95 percent favorable vote.

The McPhee Dam and related projects, known as the Dolores Project, cost an estimated $500 million, brought thousands of people into the small town of Dolores and changed the landscape forever.

The dam was finished in 1984, and it took two years before the reservoir was full and water could be delivered to farms and towns. That was in 1986, 25 years ago.

“The fact that the Dolores Water Conservancy’s 50th and the 25th anniversary of water delivery fall on the same year is just poetic,” Preston said.

The project doubled the amount of irrigated acreage in the area and gives the towns a 100-year supply of water.

“This water project is something most communities would die for,” Preston said.

Since the water started to be delivered 25 years ago, the number of irrigated acres in Montezuma and Dolores counties has gone from 35,000 to 70,000, some of that acreage as far away as Towaoc.

The project also saw the construction of the $11.6 million Dolores tunnel that was dug underneath the landscape for more than one mile, starting near the Big Bend area and tunneling under the Nielsons’ place near Cortez. It also saw the construction of pumping plants, numerous canals and two major recreation areas named McPhee and House Creek. It also saw the flooding of the old lumber town, McPhee, and countless archaeological sites, bringing in archaeologists from around the world who excavated the areas. Those artifacts are housed in the Anasazi Heritage Center, also built as part of this project.

It also changed the landscape of people in Montezuma County as contractors moved in with different specialties, such as dynamite, rock hauling, tunnel boring and the building of the pumping plants. Many decided to stay.

The project also brought in hundreds of archaeologists, many of whom stayed, as well.

“A lot of our employees started off working on the project,” Preston said.

A great kiva, named Singing Shelter, was discovered by the Dolores archaeological program. Enlarge photo

Dolores Star File/Sam Green

A great kiva, named Singing Shelter, was discovered by the Dolores archaeological program.

Construction on the Dolores Project officially started in 1980. Enlarge photo

Dolores Star file photo

Construction on the Dolores Project officially started in 1980.

Underground workers labor on the Dolores Project. Enlarge photo

Dolores star file/Sam Green

Underground workers labor on the Dolores Project.

Mud covers the face of a worker who was inside digging out the tunnel that brings water from McPhee south toward Cortez. Enlarge photo

Sam Green/Dolores Star file

Mud covers the face of a worker who was inside digging out the tunnel that brings water from McPhee south toward Cortez.

A crane lifts materials to the top of the outlet tower during construction. Only the top of the tower is visible above the water today. Enlarge photo

Dolores Star File/Sam Green

A crane lifts materials to the top of the outlet tower during construction. Only the top of the tower is visible above the water today.

Circles of light fill the tunnel after the concrete was poured and it was ready for water to flow. Enlarge photo

Dolores Star File/Sam Green

Circles of light fill the tunnel after the concrete was poured and it was ready for water to flow.

Today McPhee Reservoir provides irrigation, domestic water, recreation and a place for Canada geese to flock. Enlarge photo

sam green/Cortez Journal

Today McPhee Reservoir provides irrigation, domestic water, recreation and a place for Canada geese to flock.

Today McPhee Reservoir provides irrigation, domestic water, recreation and a place for Canada geese to flock. Enlarge photo

Cortez Journal/Sam Green

Today McPhee Reservoir provides irrigation, domestic water, recreation and a place for Canada geese to flock.