Dolores and Montezuma County commissioners are debating whether a National Conservation Area designation for the Lower Dolores River is worth pursuing.
In the lively meeting at Bubba’s Restaurant in Lewis, commissioners juggled arguments about water rights, oil and gas revenue, environmental issues and federal influence. The complex land, fish, boating and water-management issues on the river below McPhee dam have been a topic of spirited debate for decades.
The Lower Dolores flows through both counties, but commissioners disagree on the merits of an NCA. Dolores County is willing to consider it, but Montezuma County is adamantly opposed to it.
A Natural Conservation Area is a federal land designation passed by Congress to protect sensitive lands. It creates a long-term plan for environmental protections plus preservation of multiple-use recreation, water rights, agriculture and industry.
The NCA idea for a stretch of the Dolores River below the dam was floated in 2013 as a negotiation tactic between environmental groups and McPhee Reservoir officials.
The goal was to add some long-term protection to the landscape in exchange for dropping the Dolores River’s long-time “suitability” status for a National Wild and Scenic River designation, which typically comes with a federally reserved water right.
“Suitability” for a Wild and Scenic River has not been designated by Congress, but federal land agencies must preserve the natural qualities that make it potentially eligible for the protectionist status.
The worry for farmers and water managers is that if the river did get congressional approval for a National Wild and Scenic River, a federally reserved water right could draw from upstream McPhee Reservoir.
Commissioner Keenan Ertel urged Dolores County to not support an NCA.
“We have enough federal influence in our counties; let’s not invite more,” he said.
NCA language can protect water rights, countered Dolores Commissioners Julie Kibel and Steve Garchar. But Ertel said “nebulous language” in NCA draft documents could be interpreted by lawyers to mean additional water flows down the road.
“The word ‘enhancement’ of river is used, and that to me is concerning because it could be interpreted in myriad ways, like more water from our reservoir,” he said.
Dolores County Commissioner Steve Garchar said an NCA offers far more flexibility than a potentially Wild and Scenic designation in the future.
“We have Kinder Morgan interested in a possible pipeline across the river in the future,” Garchar said. “That type of development could be allowed for under NCA legislation, but maybe not under Wild and Scenic.”
Dolores Commissioner Julie Kibel agreed that an NCA was worth considering.
“Wild and Scenic is what scares me to death. With an NCA, we are able to put language in there protecting water rights,” she said, citing protection of a key pump station on the river that provides water for Dove Creek.
Don Schwindt, a board member for the Dolores Water Conservancy District that manages McPhee, was critical of earlier proposed NCA language.
He said it did not provide enough specifics to protect McPhee water rights.
Protection of native fish struggling in the lower Dolores River is seen as catalyst for conservationists to lobby the federal government for more water to improve habitat, officials said. If they became listed as endangered, it could also force more water from McPhee.
“We’re caught in a bull’s-eye down here,” Schwindt said. “An NCA needs the right language, and I became convinced the process had been hijacked, and that cratered our ability to develop the right language.”
He said McPhee diverts 63 percent of the river, and a “poorly worded” NCA language regarding water rights “could become worthless” if there is a federal push for more water for native fish.
“There are other ways to be proactive,” Schwindt said. “Asking for federal legislation invites federal players into our water contracts.”
Garchar said native fish numbers he has seen show they are doing reasonably well “without more water.”
He said creative water management is helping, including timing boating releases to protect native fish spawn and removal of non-native predatory fish such as small-mouth bass.
Montezuma County Commissioner Larry Don Suckla is strongly opposed to an NCA, saying current BLM and U.S. Forest Service protections are adequate. He said fears of a Wild and Scenic designation are irrational because the river does not meet the criteria.
“Do not act on your fears; ball up and stand your ground,” he said. “An NCA will chip away at our water rights.”
There could be a larger conspiracy at work, according to Ertel.
“Using native fish is a way to draw water away from McPhee and Blue Mesa to satisfy deficiencies at Lake Powell relied on by big cities,” he said.