Returning water to the Dolores
Dolores River Dialogue searches for consensus and flow

An unidentified boater makes a rare run of Snaggletooth on the lower Dolores in 1996. For the most part, flows on the river have been little more than a trickle since McPhee Reservoir was built in 1985. A broad-based effort is currently looking for solutions that would add volume and benefit native species, trout and recreation./Photo by Mark Pearson

Flows on one of the Southwest’s great rivers have been stunted for the nearly 20 years since McPhee Reservoir’s birth in 1985. While agriculture has been greatly enhanced because of the reservoir, the character of the Dolores River has been greatly impacted. This spring is no exception. Early this week, the river above McPhee Reservoir was running at 2,260 cubic feet per second, the highest level in recent memory. Below the dam, a mere 40 cfs trickled down the Dolores.

However, this picture could come back into balance. A broad-based effort is under way to send more water downstream. And in addition to conservationists, ranchers, farmers and irrigators have taken a seat at the table in an effort to help solve the dilemma.

The Dolores River Coalition officially launched in early June of last year with a mission of protecting and enhancing the entire Dolores River Basin. The coalition spans 21 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. While the group is working on issues throughout the river basin, one of the first items on a long list is getting more water to flow below McPhee Dam.

In this spirit, a series of talks kicked off shortly after the formation of the Dolores River Coalition. Christened the Dolores River Dialogue, the effort brought numerous stakeholders from throughout the basin to the table. Beyond conservationists, agencies like the Forest Service and Montezuma County are represented along with entities associated with water development like the Montezuma Valley Irrigators Association, the Dolores River Water Conservancy District and the Bureau of Reclamation. Over the course of four meetings, this diverse group has achieved one milestone — agreement that more water needs to flow downstream of McPhee. Over the next six meetings that are planned, they will try to figure out how to make it happen.

Chuck Wanner, Dolores River Coalition coordinator, commented, “We’re trying to decide how to meet three needs in the lower river: maintaining the stream shape and the habitats for the various native species; what’s needed for the cold water trout fishery; and what’s needed for recreation.”

Wanner added that habitat and native species are definitely the highest priority. “Success on this effort cannot be measured by whether or not people can put on the river and float,” he said. “It’s pretty complex, but I’m very optimistic.”

John Porter is Wanner’s opposite in the Dolores River Dialogue. While Wanner represents a conservation coalition, Porter is attending on behalf of the Dolores Water Conservancy District, an entity currently calling for a new reservoir in the basin. “I think we’ve realized that the goals are the same,” Porter said. “We want to get more water released downstream for fish and wildlife habitat without harming present users.”

The Dolores River winds its way through the high desert of the West Slope. Members of the Dolores River Dialogue are optimistic that their efforts will be
successful over the long term./Photo courtesy of USGS

Mike Preston, of the Fort Lewis College Office of Community Services, is moderating the Dolores River Dialogue. He concurred with Porter, saying, “There seems to be an emerging consensus that the priority is ending damage to native species and habitat.”

Porter and Preston also agreed that more water will require either more storage or money to purchase water rights. Porter said that when people think of enhancing the downstream flow of the Dolores, new dams are not the first things that come to mind.

“The Dolores Water Conservancy District has always felt that there is more water available in the basin,” Porter said. “But that means more storage, and that has not been an easy bridge for people who want more water downstream to cross.”

In fact, the Dolores Water Conservancy District is currently pursuing a plan to build a new dam on Plateau Creek, a major tributary of the Dolores. As stated, the district’s primary goal is to maintain the current allocations for agriculture from McPhee Reservoir, while satisfying demands for a more consistent water release for the non-native recreational trout fishery. The new reservoir would also help eliminate “spill,” another term for spring run-off.

“We’ve looked at ways of managing the spill to better benefit the fishery,” Porter said. “But without harming some other user, it’s hard help.”

Wanner did not limit solutions to new storage or new water rights, but he did say that the Dolores River Dialogue is currently looking to hire technical expertise and an ability to look at facts rather than concepts.

“At this point, we need some technical help in order to come up with creative options,” he said. “Rather than talk about pie in the sky or ‘would of, could of, should of,’ we’re looking at hard facts.”

Porter did mention that this is the third effort of its kind. But event with the other failures in mind, he said that he is optimistic that flows can be increased on the lower Dolores.

“It’s hopeful that the participants in this current effort can collaborate and eventually reach consensus,” he said. “At this point, I don’t have any predictions, but as long as people are still talking, there’s hope for finding some new solutions.”

As the facilitator of the process, Preston shared this optimism and he noted that people are definitely still talking. “People are still suspending judgment on the outcome, but the process is moving forward,” he said. “We’ve had a pretty full table at every meeting.”

Wanner agreed that whether a long-term fix for the flow below McPhee can be found hinges on the people sitting at the table.

“This process will either succeed or end, and it will end if a significant number of participants feel like we’re not making significant progress,” he said.

Like Preston and Porter, Wanner has hope, but given the complexity of the issue, he also has patience.

“I have faith in people’s abilities to work things out over time, and this is the kind of solution that we have to figure out,” Wanner said in closing. “There aren’t any silver bullet answers to make this thing work.”






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