Exclusive Look: ‘River of Sorrow: Inheriting the Dolores River’

New film documents the legend, loss and promise of Colorado's Dolores River

In the 1980s river running in the American Southwest was exploding in popularity, and new commercial outfitters were cropping up all across the region. At the heart of this transformation was a little known desert river in southwestern Colorado: the Dolores. Although it didn’t have the name recognition or the volume of the Colorado River, which it joins just upstream from Moab, Utah, the Dolores was a river runner’s dream stretch. With hundreds of miles of wilderness quality sections, it offered options for two- to ten-day floats through ponderosa forests and slickrock canyons that easily rival the Southwest’s major destination rivers of the San Juan, Yampa and Green in their beauty. Plus there was whitewater. During the spring runoff, rapids like Snaggletooth were among the most storied in the Western boater’s campfire canon. These factors led Colorado guide and outfitter owner Bill Dvorak to declare that the Dolores was — along with the Grand Canyon and Idaho’s Middle Fork of Salmon — one of the three best river trips in the country.

But all of this has to be written in the past tense. In 1985, McPhee Dam closed its gates in service of a sizable agricultural industry that remains dependent on irrigation for its survival. In the decades since, the Dolores River has only risen to boatable flows a handful of times. Most of the year, it’s an 80 cfs trickle that not only keeps paddlers away but has driven native fish species to the brink of local extinction.

Easy as it is for paddlers to lament the river’s fate, a moving new film on the Dolores’ history and future, The River of Sorrow, doesn’t fall to simple finger pointing. Commissioned by the Dolores River Boating Advocates (DRBA) and produced by Rig to Flip, the film takes us beyond the river running perspective to the many stakeholders involved in a rising effort to co-manage the Dolores for agriculture, habitat restoration and boating. C&K caught up with Sam Carter, board president of the DRBA, to hear more about the film and his group’s work on with the Dolores. We also got ahold of three exclusive teaser trailers from the film, which are embedded in the post below. The full film is available for purchase at: RiverofSorrows.com

C&K: Let’s start with the fun stuff. The archival footage in this film has some pretty epic clips of high-water runs on the Dolores in the early 1980s.
Sam Carter: In that footage folks are having fun. Big water. I have some friends who boated the Dolores that year and today they have this look on their face of love and disappointment: love for the runoff that year and disappointment because as long as the dam is in place, those flows won’t happen again.

There are still occasional opportunities to run the Dolores, right?
There are some. Since I started rafting the river in 1999, there have only been eight spills. That is eight boating seasons in seventeen years and in that time, we have had two stretches of four years without a spill.

Dryland tilling in Montezuma County, Colorado. Photo by Rig to Flip.
Dryland tilling in Montezuma County, Colorado. Photo by Rig to Flip.

Where does the water go now?
The water goes a few places. The largest amount by far goes to agriculture at 221,500 acre feet per year. The water goes through a lot of canals to farms out west and south of the Dolores River in Montezuma and Dolores Counties including the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Farm and Ranch Enterprise. A much smaller amount goes downriver to support the fish and river ecology at 30,900 acre feet. And then the smallest amount, 17,200 acre feet, goes to the municipal needs in these two counties for human use.

So, is it safe to say the local commercial rafting industry dried up with the river?
Yeah, outfitters tried to stay afloat for a while, but the predictability of when there was going to be a spill from the dam became too vague and outfitters couldn’t count on the flows. So they stopped running it and the legend of the Dolores is becoming quieter. Those of us who live here still know the story, at least those of us who got to ride that water, but the folks who are new to boating here don’t really know what was down there. They really just hear stories.

The meanders of the Dolores River near Slickrock, Colorado. Photo by Cody Perry.
The meanders of the Dolores River near Slickrock, Colorado. Photo by Rig to Flip.

Tell us one of your favorite Dolores stories.
A great memory I have comes from 2000 when I was rowing a raft for Peregrine River Outfitters owned and operated Tom and Barb Klema. We were about to run Snaggletooth, the beastiest rapid on the river. I’m sure I felt as nervous then as I do now typing out this story. We ran the first slot just fine, pulled right, and then tried to move left. But that didn’t happen. I missed that move and just went right downstream and my raft slid right up on top of this big boulder right next to the Snaggletooth rock itself. I was wrapped–really tightly wrapped on this rock. Water was pouring over the boat and we were surrounded by rocks and pour overs. I was bummed of course, a little scared, totally embarrassed. Thankfully, the clients on the boat with me were some tough adventurous guys from Arkansas who were able to have a good time with it all. Next to Snaggletooth Rapid is a pretty rough two track and within a few minutes of me getting wrapped, there were three or four ATVs sitting up on the bank. These folks on their four wheelers just appeared out of nowhere. Turns out that one person was in the shade and saw me get wrapped and called on their radio to their friends that there was some action at Snag. So they all joined in like they were sitting in the bleachers watching the Cardinals beat the Cubs. Well, I was stuck out there for three hours. With some amazing rope shuttling by my fellow guide Matt Klema who was paddling a kayak, and with the strength of a bunch of boaters on shore, I was eventually pulled free and headed back downstream. Several years later when I was teaching high school, I was telling this story to my class (because you have to tell stories when teaching) and this one kid said, “I think I was there that day.” I didn’t really believe it, but the next day he showed up with a photograph of me wrapped on that rock. He was one of the folks sitting on his quad watching the action. This picture goes with me now on all trips to remind me of……..

The Snaggletooth wrap. Courtesy Sam Carter.
The Snaggletooth wrap. Courtesy Sam Carter.

Tell us a little bit about agriculture in Montezuma and Dolores counties. What are the main crops grown?
The main crops are alfalfa, beans, wheat, vegetables, and fruit orchards. There are other crops too. The largest and most water-intensive crop produced is alfalfa. Some of it is used here for livestock but some is shipped out of state and, at times, even out of the country. Some bean farmers are using irrigation and there are also farmers here who don’t have irrigation, but they are still able to raise beans and other crops. Certainly, the irrigation makes for a more consistent crop. The vegetable farmers are using less water and frequently use methods that don’t require vast quantities of water.


Why are the Dolores River Boating Advocates working to restore boatable flows on the river?

Our leading reason is actually is not about boating but about the health of this river. Flows that are boatable in the Dolores are flows that will scour the sediment buildup that needs to be scoured for habitat and will also push out the algae that is not healthy for the fish. Water is what a river needs, what the fish need, the otters, all the creatures, all plants and trees of the riparian zone. So restoring boatable flows is good for the river. And the fun part is that restoring boatable flows provides for great recreation on our public waterways, our public lands. And of course the recreation opportunities available with boatable flows on Dolores River are incredible. It’s a river, so in my opinion it is totally worth letting the river be a river.

What progress has been made in recent years? Have these diverse groups of people found any common ground?
I would say yes and that yes would relate to the fact that folks seem to understand that the Dolores is not healthy right now. But even there, we have different interpretations of the depth of the challenge faced by the Dolores. There is a large, active group of all the stakeholders, The Dolores River Dialogue that is working to address the gaps in that common ground. As you might imagine though, that is hard ground to find and to hold.

McPhee Dam. Photo by Cody Perry.
McPhee Dam. Photo by Rig to Flip.

The River of Sorrow does a great job of jumping into these thorny issues and showing the perspectives of river runners, anglers, fisheries experts, and farmers.
This might be one of the most important topics because if the Dolores River is to have sustainable, healthy flows again and also be able to support agriculture and municipalities, all of the stakeholders must communicate. We asked a lot of Rig to Flip, the film producers, when we hired them to create this film. We wanted a film that is honest and inclusive. A film that tells the story of this river and doesn’t ostracize or embellish, that invites all people to speak and learn about the Dolores. I actually get emotional when I think of the power of the Dolores’ story and the incredible work Rig to Flip did with the film. We are hearing from stakeholders that this film is excellent because it is honest and open, gives voice to all associated with the Dolores and isn’t demanding a one-sided solution. The movie is working to forward the conversation of how we can all live here together, sustain the Dolores, sustain agriculture and towns and do so while being in agreement on the solution. This is work that is chipping away at the over consumptive nature of the stagnated western water paradigm.

What would you like to see happen in the next 15 years on the Dolores?
There has been some progress toward federal level protection for the Dolores Canyon, not the river but the land, through a National Conservation Area. This would be a NCA that is built from community collaboration and not from a White House signature. We want this to be from the community, but this won’t get solved overnight. It will be a long running effort.

Also, there is currently litigation in the courts to keep water out of the river. We at DRBA would like to be involved in finding solutions that don’t involve courts but that do involve the people of this community talking and banging out these details so that we can know this solution comes from us and is not forced upon anyone. That will take hard, hard work.

DRBA is also working every day to further public education around water rights, consumptive use, ecological health of the river, and so on. We plan to get annual releases for the Dolores that sustain the river and that support whitewater recreation. And we are going to do this while honoring and supporting agricultural interests. We live here and love the place we live. This is our community.

Finally, the million dollar question: What are the chances of a 2016 release?
Oh…..how we all want to know. This is tough because we have had a strong snow year, a cool and wet spring, and there was a lot of water in the reservoir at the end of last fall. The reservoir is going to be very close to full. But the water managers just announced last week that there will most likely not be a spill. And this is what’s so hard about this situation. The water managers do their best to read the data and make accurate decisions, but in the past, there have been announcements of no spill and then we actually have a spill, and other years it is announced that the water is shutting off, but it actually does the opposite. This is another layer in this game that makes it all so frustrating and challenging. Regardless of all that, my personal, non scientific, gut oriented prediction is: yes, there will be a spill. Small to medium in size. My boat is ready to float. We’ll know soon!

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