Story of the Dolores: American Whitewater’s Work to Restore Flows to The River Of Sorrows

The Dolores River, once a world-class paddling destination, no longer runs in most years. Photo courtesy American Whitewater
The Dolores River, once a world-class paddling destination, no longer runs in most years. Photo courtesy American Whitewater

By Belinda Griswold

Since the late 1980s, when McPhee Dam started diverting the water out of the Dolores River in Colorado, it's been a long haul to protect and restore this paddling gem of the Southwest. Today a combination of new federal legislation and a state in-stream water right have conservation advocates and paddlers hoping that permanent protections of the river canyon could finally become a reality. Since the 1970s, this gorgeous river and its redrock canyons have been found suitable for Wild and Scenic designation (over vitriolic opposition from irrigated agriculture interests). The river now flows at almost a trickle in most years, endangering native fish and plants and making this once world-class paddling destination nearly impossible for Americans to experience.

American Whitewater's Colorado Stewardship Director, Nathan Fey, who has paddled, guided on and advocated for the river since 2001, is finally seeing a few rays of sunshine for this beautiful and endangered river. Fey worked as the coordinator of a local watershed group in the area and founded a non-profit experiential education program which used the river as a living classroom for local school districts. He has been working for over 15 years to bring the Dolores back to life, and after years of conflict, he sees a chance for balancing the needs of the river with those of local landowners and the agricultural community. In longtime partnership with the San Juan Citizens Alliance, Fey says that even the slight possibility of legislation that would create a National Conservation Area is motivating entrenched stakeholders to consider permanent protection of the Dolores River’s canyons.

A National Conservation Area designation, along with some innovative planning for flow releases from McPhee Dam, would go a long way in mitigating the harsh impacts of the reservoir, which was completed in 1984. McPhee’s impacts on the river system weren't felt immediately because the 80s had several uncharacteristically wet years; there was initially enough water for fish, families, farms and boaters. In the years that followed, however, the number of acres that were irrigated by Dolores River water doubled and local towns were guaranteed a 100-year supply of water. The increased demand came to a head with decreased supply after a persistent drought began in 2001. Today, the minimum flow released through the state's share of reservoir storage is a measly 20 cfs, which has reduced the Dolores River to a small creek for most of the year.

Packrafters on the Dolores River, Colorado. Photo courtesy American Whitewater
Packrafters on the Dolores River, Colorado. Photo courtesy American Whitewater

And with the loss of big spring runoff events, the river channel has silted in and deep pools where warm water fish formerly survived the dry summer months have disappeared. The number of boating days has plummeted – from an average of over 3,000 users a year to less than 120. A recent in-stream flow designation determined by Colorado Water Conservation Board in September 2015 will help mitigate the negative impact that more diversions from the San Miguel River (a tributary to the Dolores) may have, but it won't do much to restore boatable flows.

As this point, Fey's long-time partnerships with other conservation and scientific stakeholders have found common ground since restoration of flows for paddlers will help improve habitat for fish and vice versa. So today, thirty years after the dam's completion and with the river running at barely a trickle many years, the dialogue on the Dolores is still working to find a solution that works for alfalfa farmers, boaters, endangered native fish, and local communities.

But there is still tremendous resistance from water-users in the region, some of whom are using Dolores water to grow three cuts of alfalfa a year in a very arid landscape. The Bureau of Reclamation has also been intransigent, refusing to allow any spills until the reservoir is full – a guideline that is inconsistent with the projects federal authorizations.

Nathan Fey.
Nathan Fey.

The possibility of new federal legislation, however, may provide the kind of push needed to get efforts to protect Dolores River values back on track. In light of the possible listing of native fish as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, 2016 may be the year of breakthrough and cooperation. "Conservation interests have tried to assure that private property interests are protected under the legislation – it's a win-win,” says Fey. “To get protections in place, for the benefit of everybody, we need to step out of our entrenched and positional thinking, and cooperate with one another. The alternative is expensive and not good for Colorado's legacy heritage."

— Stay tuned. River-running filmmakers at Rig to Flip, will soon release a feature-length film profiling the Dolores’ river-running history and its impact on the local recreation and agriculture economies.

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