Dolores closes in on regular flows
Stakeholders come together over Dolores River Dialogue

The infamous “snag” rock in Snaggletooth Rapid on the Dolores River bears its teeth during last spring’s run-off. The river ran at boatable flows last year for the first time in five years thanks to releases from McPhee Reservoir. A consortium of river and reservoir interests are working on making boatable flows a more regular occurrence. As  little as 55 percent of average snowpack this winter will mean flows again this spring./Photo by Todd Newcomer. 

by Ken Wright

It’s not for everybody. Not that every river runner couldn’t love the Dolores River – it is arguably the most varied and lovely of Colorado’s rivers – but the rule on the Dolores is, you just don’t know when or if it’ll flow. And not every river runner can deal with that.

Bill Dvorak, owner of the Nathrop-based Dvorak River Expeditions, has been running the Dolores commercially since the 1970s. “Personally, it’s my favorite river, along with the Grand Canyon and the Middle Fork of the Salmon,” he says.

But since 1984, when the penstocks were closed on the Bureau of Reclamation’s McPhee Dam, those commercial trips have become tenuous. Management mandates on the dam require that Reclamation’s first priority is to fill – and keep full – McPhee Reservoir. The agency, too, has been reluctant to make forecasts for boatable flows, knowing that any projections are secondary to the needs of the reservoir pool level.

For commercial outfitters like Dvorak, though, paying customers need to plan, and they need confirmation of their trips by March or April. “The Dolores is hard to market,” he says.

To market effectively, river companies need to know if and when adequate flows will be, explains Dvorak. Then the Bureau of Reclamation needs to “live up to what they say,” he says. “It boils down to the guy turning the valves, and if he’s looking out for the good of the many rather than the few.” Reclamation, he complains, “never sticks to what they say they’re going to do.”

That shaky relationship leads most boaters, private and commercial, to make plans for rivers they know will run. And it leaves the unpredictable Dolores for the true Dolores River-heads and their annual Dolores Vigil: waiting and watching, ready to spring when the Dolores rises.

Through the drought of the late 1990s and early 2000s – and particularly from 2001-04 when the Dolores saw no boatable flows – that vigil was long and lonely. But thanks to a group called the Dolores River Dialogue, and following the lessons from last year’s long-awaited boating season, 2006 and beyond may be different.

Begun in 2004, the Dialogue brings together various river stakeholders to work on finding added flows for fish habitat and recreation, while maintaining the regional economies dependent upon the Dolores Project’s water.

The 2005 season provided a golden opportunity for the Dialogue to move forward. Not only did it serve up the first boatable flows in five years, it also saw the largest flows on the river since McPhee first plugged the stream, with peak flow hitting 4,200 cubic feet per second.

Following peak runoff, the Dialogue, working with federal, regional and tribal agencies, as well as with the Dolores River Coalition, which represents more than 20 groups with vested interests in the river, launched a scientific study of the rare high water. It also used feedback from the season’s river runners to work on ways to improve how presently available water is managed and flow projections communicated.

In 2005, the Dolores saw boatable flows of 800 cfs and above from the last week of April until mid-June (although June’s flows were erratic and sometimes as low as 100 cfs). The BLM reported 522

launches, most of which were in May. Boaters came from all over the West and as far away as Florida, according to register logs (permits are not required on the Dolores). However, most were from Southwest Colorado – with the vast majority from Durango, reflecting that uncertainty about the flows keeps people from traveling long distances to float the river.

Following the season, boaters raised concerns over the wildly fluctuating releases and the Bureau of Reclamation’s poor communication of those flows. This was best exemplified on Memorial Day weekend, when the Bureau projected flows between 3,000 and 4,000 cfs, but unexpectedly cut flows mid-weekend to around 1,000 cfs (even though inflows to the reservoir held above 3,000 cfs).

The decrease was not as disturbing, though, as the fact that boaters didn’t know the river would be dropping or how

far it would drop once it started. At the Dialogue’s meeting in November, Carla VanderZander, a guide with the Moab-based Canyonlands Field Institute, described a commercial trip during which the river dropped suddenly even though she had received a flow prediction of 1,000 cfs from the Bureau of Reclamation the week before. The group frantically rowed to the nearest takeout for fear of being stranded in a remote canyon.

“It was stressful and not very professional,” VanderZander said, “and it made me uneasy safety-wise. We would not have put on with a 16-foot boat if we had known. But there was no information anywhere.”

In the Dialogue’s rare spirit of conversation, these issues and others were hashed out at the meeting – a process that in the past would have been laced with emotion and defensive posturing. As a result, for the 2006 boating season, 4 the Bureau of Reclamation has agreed to work to distribute flows more evenly over as many days as possible, to avoid sudden fluctuations. It also agreed to improve communication on projected flows – including frequently updated website postings via the Dolores Water Conservation District’s website at and through a new e-mail list (enroll by writing

“I’m really excited about it,” says Vern Harrell, the Bureau of Reclamation’s representative to the Dialogue. “It’s a neat thing to see the way people are coming together. It’s not just one group saying, ‘We’re going to do what’s best for our interests.’ People are looking at the whole river. And we need to open our eyes to the whole river system.”

Kent Ford, a Durango-based boater speaking for private boating interests, agrees. “I think it’s really going well,” he says. “It’s a lot better than a few years ago. The biggest thing is the tone – everyone wants to work together on it. That’s better than the screaming match of a few years ago.

“It’s a bad deal we have to adapt to, but it’s good that people see we need to adapt,” he adds. “We’re starting to turn the ship. It’s good to see BuRec saying, ‘There are issues here, and we need to work it out.’”

In turn, and reflecting the Dialogue’s spirit of cooperation, boaters in the Dialogue have agreed to let some water normally held for recreation be used to help native fishery recovery.

Over the past 2 million years, several unique species of fish evolved with the Dolores River’s unusual flow regime, including the roundtail chub, blueheaded sucker and flannelmouth sucker. All are now endangered by the Dolores Project’s siphoning off of spring’s high flows and the radically low (as low as 4 cfs) late-season trickles.

A survey performed last year of the 31 miles below the dam uncovered “sobering statistics,” says Colorado Division of Wildlife biologist Mike Japhet. The study found a sharp decrease in the roundtail chub populations and turned up only one blueheaded sucker and no flannelmouth suckers.

“I don’t know why they named it ‘The River of Sorrows,’” says Japhet, “But it’s an apt name if you’re a fish.

“No one but fish biologists like these fish,” he adds, “but they are indicative of the health of the river system. We’re about to lose the native fish community on the Dolores River.”

At the November meeting, Japhet argued that he would like to see the dam releases timed to mimic the natural hydrograph – starting in March rather than May, with regular, flushing flows and cold water (deep reservoir) releases in the summer. However, this, he acknowledged, would cut into flows now enjoyed by river runners. Nonetheless, river runners at the meeting agreed to defer some water for fish management.

This elicited visible excitement from Japhet. Even Reclamation’s Harrell was impressed. “That was a monumental statement that said ‘We care as much about the river as our fun on it,’” Harrell observed later.

Although flow projections for the Dolores’s 2006 season are, as always, uncertain, there is optimism. At the November meeting, BuRec also announced that a mere 55 percent of average snowpack would fill McPhee Reservoir. Bi-weekly updates on flow projections will be posted on beginning this month.

While this is hardly enough information to bank a long river-running vacation on, for Dolores-heads, it’s something. It’s more than they’ve had in a long, long time.