The opening of the lower Dolores River for the first time in five years was a joyous occasion for boaters who could swing the impromptu release. However, it was also a sober realization that choke-hold restrictions are slowly transitioning the river into its altered state as a low-flow creek.
Overgrown banks, loads of sediment in the waterway and a depleted fishery cast a pale backdrop to an otherwise awe-inspiring float down the lower Dolores River, known for its deep canyons, lush ponderosa forests and seemingly endless succession of whitewater.
“And all of that is just a reflection of the channel starting to reflect the current hydrology,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologist Jim White. “It has changed.”
The backstoryBefore McPhee Reservoir was built in the 1980s, effectively plugging the river near the town of Dolores, flows were erratic at best: some years, after spring runoff, agricultural needs left the winding waterway completely dry.
To meet the annual irrigation demands of more than 70,000 acres of otherwise arid land as well as the domestic water use of two communities – all located in another water basin – a dam was proposed.
On Sept. 30, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Colorado River Basin Project Act, which approved a number of water diversion schemes in the West, and at the time, it was the most expensive authorization in the country’s history.
Yet, like most political moves, there’s always more to the story.
In Marc Reisner’s seminal 1986 book on the West’s water woes, Cadillac Desert, the official in charge of providing benefit-cost estimates for the Bureau of Reclamation, Dan Dreyfus, candidly confessed how the ill-advised project came to fruition.
“Those projects were pure trash,” Dreyfus said in 1981, just before his retirement. “I knew they were trash, and (Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Floyd) Dominy knew they were trash.”
Dreyfus said the dam on the Dolores, among other projects, was included in the bill because Colorado representative Wayne Aspinall threatened Arizona congressman Stewart Udall that “no Central Arizona Project will ever get by me unless my five projects get authorized, too.”
“When Udall passed the word on to us, we were appalled,” Dreyfus said. “I had to fly all the way out to Denver and jerk around the benefit-cost numbers to make the thing look sound.”
Today, water out of McPhee Reservoir, considered the most expensive allotments in the Southwest, mainly supplies farms growing alfalfa, one of the most water-intensive crops used to feed cattle.
The divisive interests between farmers and recreationists have caused a debate over water rights to rage on for almost four decades.
A different riverSince the dam operates on a “fill, then spill” policy, enough water to float the lower Dolores River is only released when the dam is at capacity, and there’s no other place to store inflows.
That hadn’t happened since 2011 – until this year, when two small releases allowed boaters as well as wildlife officials to get an inside peek at what’s been happening to the long-neglected stretch of river.
And it didn’t look good.
The wildlife division’s White said a survey of the 19-mile stretch from Bradfield Bridge to the Dove Creek Pump Station found only 150 brown trout, a non-native species, and came up nearly empty-handed on native species.
“The loss of consistent spring flow to maintain habitat, coupled with altered base flow regimes, just all adds up to where we’re seeing reduced numbers of native species,” White said. “But what struck me, just the abundance of fish in general, native and non-native, is low through that part of the canyon.”
Another discernable transformation noted by many boaters was the unbridled vegetation that has started to bottleneck the river’s original channel. It was one of the most striking changes Sam Carter, board president of the Dolores River Boating Advocates, noticed on his trip this year.
“The overgrowth was intense, and dangerous,” Carter said. “There were two places that made it dangerous to move in a rapid.”
Carter said for the most part, this year’s release was a success: The large turnout of Dolores River aficionados worked together at boat launches, the weather made for hot days and warm nights, and the past year’s lack of access to the river left campgrounds, and the canyon in general, as wild as ever.
Yet a larger issues looms.
“This one spill is not the answer,” Carter said. “There has to be a change in the paradigm how that water is used. The river is getting killed. It’s a slow process, but it is happening.”
Is change possible?Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores River Water Conservancy District, said at this point, it is “highly, highly unlikely” that any changes would occur to the management plan for the Dolores River.
Preston, a boater himself who took a trip on the Dolores River this year, said many farmers in the area made large investments setting farms up based on the water allocations.
“One boating day at 1,000 cubic feet per second is enough water to irrigate 1,000 acres for a full season,” he said. “And the farmers are paying us to maintain the facilities. And they also make payments to the federal government.”
Indeed, John Porter, a farmer turned Dolores Water Conservancy District manager who retired in 2002, said he’s clear in his bias for use of the river.
“There’s another side of it,” Porter said. “Do you just quit farming in this area and leave the water in the river? Until McPhee, it was dry river in the summertime because all the water was diverted. This project at least keeps it as a full-time river.”
Though the Dolores flowed anywhere from 800 to 1,500 cfs during the release, river levels throughout the year remain chronically low. In 2013, for instance, the river was at a trickle at just 13 cfs. The boating advocate’s president Carter said that doesn’t exactly constitute a healthy, flourishing river.
Carter said the group is “very actively” working on ways to secure annual releases out of McPhee for the benefit of recreationists and the environment.
“It’s not going to happen overnight, but we’re definitely working on it,” Carter said.
But for now, as the Dolores River slowly returns to its dispossessed flows, boaters look with a mixture of frustration and optimism toward next year.
“It was very much a bigger adventure than I think most people anticipated,” said Josh Munson, a board member of the Dolores River Boating Advocates. “Many longtime boaters noted the same things. It was faster, more wild. But the lack of water is really changing the characteristic of the river itself.
“When there isn’t a recreational release, it really isn’t much of a river.”