Finding answers for the Dolores
New coalition to work for enhancement, protection of river basin

The Lower Dolores River pictured at an unusually high flow. The newly formed Dolores River Coalition hopes to return flows to relatively dry river and safeguard and enhance the entire river basin./Photo courtesy USGS.

The final stone was placed on McPhee Reservoir’s dam in 1985, and river flows in the Lower Dolores have been stunted for the nearly 20 years since. A broad-based grassroots coalition officially launches next week with the mission of protecting and enhancing the entire Dolores River Basin. While the effort will be broad-based and multifaceted, many members of the new group, the Dolores River Coalition, agree that putting water back into the river is the most pressing issue.

The Dolores River Coalition includes 20 different groups ranging from Durango’s San Juan Citizens’ Alliance and locally-based Great Old Broads for Wilderness to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Environmental Defense Fund and Colorado Environmental Coalition. Chuck Wanner, coordinator of the Dolores River Coalition, said that the basin draining the west side of the San Juan Mountains and stretching from alpine to desert is well worth protecting.

“It’s a pretty remarkable landscape,” Wanner said. “There’s a lot to be gained in terms of protection of natural resources. It’s got a wide variety of plants and animals and some pretty amazing canyon country. There’s roughly a quarter million acres of potential wilderness in the basin.”

Wanner added that the enormous area also faces a number of threats. “It’s also an area that’s rapidly changing in character. The numbers of people aren’t as great as in other places and because of that, there’s a lot more to lose in many ways.”

Coalition launches at River Festival

Next week, the Dolores River Coalition will officially launch its campaign to protect the outstanding natural attributes of the Dolores River Basin in both Colorado and Utah. The campaign kick-off will be held at the Dolores River Brewery at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 7, in conjunction with the Dolores River Festival.

The River Festival will run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Joe Rowell Park in Dolores. Activities will include free raft rides, a fishing clinic, a river clean-up and novelty boat races. Information, food booths and kids activities will round out the day on the river.

For more information about the festival or the campaign, contact Chuck Wanner at 259-3583.

The coalition plans to focus on preserving and improving river and riparian habitat, encouraging the creation of two wilderness areas that would border the river, eliminating exotic species and preserving native species, and of course, getting water flowing in the Lower Dolores again.

Early this week, the Dolores above McPhee Reservoir was flowing at 1,740 cubic feet per second, nearly peak run-off and the highest level in at least a couple years. Below McPhee, a mere 16 cubic feet per second dribbled downstream as the empty reservoir worked to replenish itself. With the exception of scheduled releases, this has largely been the picture since the dam’s completion. The reservoir was constructed primarily to serve the needs of agriculture, but it has come at the expense of habitat and recreation. “The Dolores was a natural resource that many people and many more species had been enjoying for many years,” commented Ronni Egan, executive director of Great Old Broads. “But it was suddenly kidnapped and is no more below McPhee.”

Egan characterized flows in the Lower Dolores as “integral” to the health of the entire basin. “I just moved into a new house in Mancos where I see literally hundreds of sprinklers watering alfalfa fields with Dolores River water,” she said. “I do know that we need to be coalition-building with other interested parties in the watershed, including agriculture. But is providing food for livestock really the best use of this resource?”

Egan added that her motives for returning flows to the Lower Dolores are not unselfish, saying, “I’m an avid boater, and I miss running Snaggletooth.”

Wanner said that opening McPhee’s floodgates wider will most likely be the coalition’s first effort. Like Egan, he noted that the issue is not totally one-sided, saying, “Without sustaining agriculture to some extent, a lot of land in the area will become condos.”

However, the Dolores River Coalition already has a concrete direction for improving flows and the solution is one that should not harm agricultural interests. “Our first efforts will be directed at working to increase flows in the Lower Dolores,” Wanner said. “We think it can be done within the free market and within the confines of Colorado Water Law.”

The coalition also will work to help local communities take care of themselves. Wanner said that, in particular, the group will try to defeat the regional norm of extractive industry and establish long-term economies that give back.

“One thing, and not least importantly, is we’re interested in encouraging viable, long-term economies,” he said. “We would like to see economies that don’t chew up the resources and then go away.”

Wanner said that whether it be securing water rights, aiding economies or helping designate wilderness areas, the members of the coalition will go out of their way to avoid stepping on toes.

“This is not a run-and-gun effort,” Wanner said. “This is a long-term, widespread effort. I think you’ll find that our approach is relatively pragmatic and low-key and is designed to work with people in the basin in a way to protect some of its most important natural attributes.”

Joan May, executive director of the Telluride-based Sheep Mountain Alliance, said her group is involved because its area of focus is the headwaters of the Dolores River Basin.

“The Dolores River is in our region, and it’s an important river for Colorado,” May said. “I feel like if everyone works together we can make a difference. It’s certainly possible to improve the river health if there’s a group of people committed to it and now there is. I’m feeling really hopeful about this.”

Wanner said that he hopes that working together will become the norm as the Dolores River Coalition gains momentum. “Really it stems from a belief that the longest-lasting, most protective solutions will be ones that involve as many local people as possible,” he concluded.







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