Dolores ­season takes shape

One of the Southwest’s great rivers will return to life in May, but in a much more limited way than last year. Spring run-off will flow through the normally dry Dolores River with boatable flows expected for two weeks beginning May 15.

Run-off on the Lower Dolores – which includes several legendary runs – has been stunted ever since the final stone was placed on McPhee dam in 1985. While agriculture has been greatly enhanced by the reservoir, the character of the Dolores River has been altered. On most years, spring run-off above the reservoir has been as high as 3,000 cfs yet trickling at a mere 40 cfs below the dam. Boaters are not the only ones who have suffered from this situation. Absence of water has negatively affected wildlife and damaged what was once a world-class fishery.

However, the Lower Dolores has had some of its old flavor restored recently. There was a significant release from McPhee in 2005, and following last year’s banner winter, the lower Dolores ran from April - June. The 2009 Dolores River season will be much more limited, according to Vern Harrell, of the Bureau of Reclamation. The month of March was a challenging one for the region’s snowpack. Any storms that did arrive brought high winds and dust, and little precipitation. As a result, the Dolores Basin’s snowpack level is currently at 93 percent of average, and water managers are carefully considering options for this spring’s spill.

“Right now, we really don’t know,” Harrell said. “We will have boatable flows, but a lot can change between now and then.”

In the best case scenario, Harrell expects two weeks of raftable water on the Lower Dolores beginning May 15. Flows should begin around 800 cfs and bump up to 1,200 by Memorial Day weekend.  

“What we’re hoping to do is to fill McPhee Reservoir pretty early,” Harrell said. “Depending on where we’re at with the fill, we’ll probably start the spill on May 15.”

However, there is also a worst-case scenario. Should high temperatures and windy conditions continue into May, a much slimmer release schedule is likely. In this case, Harrell said boaters could expect 1,000 cfs from May 21 - 26. The weather in coming weeks will determine which scenario plays out.

Looking at a sunny and warm long-term forecast and the fact that the Upper Dolores is already running at 1,350 cfs, Harrell encouraged boaters to lower their expectations. Even in the best case, rafters and kayakers should be prepared for more cars at put-ins and take-outs and crowded campsites on the river.

Up-to-date information on releases and flows is available at, and a new projection for the Dolores River season will be posted May 1.

Wilderness pitched for Ice Lakes

The Ice Lake Basin area could be on its way to wilderness status. Silverton’s San Juan County is currently considering whether to press for protection for the popular and scenic area

Loaded with wildflowers in the summer and surrounded by stunning peaks, Ice Lake Basin is a popular destination for area hikers and tourists. It is also adjacent to the Sheep Mountain Special Management Area, which is a front-runner for local wilderness protection in Rep. John Salazar’s office.

Jeff Widen, of the Wilderness Society’s Durango office, told theSilverton Standard that an additional 2,000 to 3,000 acres could be added to the 60,000-acre special management area in order to provide protection for Ice Lakes. Widen noted that no additional roads would need to be closed, and heli-skiing would be grandfathered into the designation. Salazar’s office then could press for wilderness status for the entire special management area.

“We essentially would be leaving it the way it is now,” Widen told the paper. “We tried to design this in a way that would have the least affects on traditional uses.”

However, the San Juan County commissioners appear to be divided on the issue. Commissioner Pete McKay wrote, “This is a golden opportunity to give special protection to one of the most beautiful areas of Colorado while at the same time ensuring the economic sustainability of San Juan County from revenue that comes from backcountry recreation so popular in the Ice Lakes Basin region.”

On the flip side, Commissioner Terry Rhoades told theStandard he is concerned the proposal “could potentially make patented mining claims worthless.”

The commissioners will hold a forum on the topic at 6:30 p.m. on Wed., April 29, in the San Juan County Courthouse.

Durango river steward honored

One of Durango’s leading river stewards received national recognition last week. Ty Churchwell, of the Five Rivers Chapter of Trout Unlimited, was recognized as Colorado Trout Unlimited’s 2009 Volunteer of the Year last weekend at the group’s Spring Rendezvous.

Churchwell commented that he volunteers out of a sense of obligation both to the Durango community and the Animas watershed. “Those trout keep me sane and our rivers are my ‘church,’” he said. “Healthy rivers are the lifeblood of our communities, and I’m thankful Durango recognizes the value of the Animas to our community.”

The award also spotlighted the Animas River Restoration Project, which Churchwell is helping to spearhead. The City of Durango was awarded an $86,000 grant from the Colorado Division of Wildlife for habitat improvements and bank stabilization for the stretch of river between 9th Street and the Highway 160 bridge. The project, which is planned for August, is meant to improve fish habitat while restoring riparian areas along the western river bank. With the high flows and increased use of the area in recent years, a number of native cottonwoods and shrubs along the banks have disappeared, leading to further erosion and habitat damage.

“The restoration project we are doing on the Animas is symbolic of the spirit of Durango,” he said. “The great success we are experiencing at the chapter is a function of the wonderful people in Durango who come out and donate to our causes. We could not do this type of project without the people who support us.”

The Five Rivers Chapter’s upcoming annual fund-raiser is scheduled for May 2 in the Fort Lewis College Ballroom.

Local students pitch in for Animas

Earth Day and youthful volunteerism smiled on the Animas River this week. The Durango Youth Coalition, the Durango High School National Honor Society and students from Columbine Christian School all pitched in to clean-up the Animas as it flows through Durango. The efforts began April 22, Earth Day, with groups working south from 32nd Street and picking up trash and refuse along both banks.

The Durango Youth Coalition and National Honor Society noted that volunteerism is a part of civic engagement in their community. For Columbine Christian students, the work carried on an eight-year tradition of giving back to the community and Animas River.

More than 90 CCS students gathered on Earth Day to start the clean-up. They will continue to clean the 4-mile stretch between 32nd St. and the Durango Mall “until the job is done,” likely sometime in mid-May. The clean-up is not only Columbine Christian’s largest service project, it is the school’s largest fund-raiser. Anyone interested in sponsoring a student can contact the school at 259-1189.

– Will Sands



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January 25, 2024
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January 26, 2024
Paper chase

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January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows