The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation just finished a controlled, peak release from the McPhee Reservoir that reached 4,000 cubic feet per second over the past weekend. The ramp down began Sunday, starting at 800 cfs per day until Thursday, May 11.
“This is a really exciting time on the Dolores River because of a combination of high carry over storage in McPhee Reservoir and a good snowpack has resulted in a fairly large managed release from McPhee Reservoir,” said Celene Hawkins of the Colorado Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. “Every seven to 10 years it happens that we’ll have as much water in the system that we’ll have this year. It’s a really important opportunity to manage those flows for the ecology downstream of McPhee Dam.”
She added that 4,000 cfs is the fastest the river has flowed since 2005. As of Monday, the river was at about 3,400 cfs, she said.
As the nature conservancy’s Western Colorado Water Project Manager, Hawkins is monitoring the impacts of the release throughout the whole river system. She is also the co-chair of the Dolores River Native Fish Monitoring and Recommendation Team, which aides the Dolores River Conservancy District.
“We’re doing a lot of monitoring around the release and particularly around this larger peak release to better understand what’s feasible within existing water supplies,” she said.”
Hawkins led a flyover tour of the Dolores River — from the McPhee Reservoir in Dolores to Bedrock in the West End of Montrose County — Monday afternoon. The LightHawk volunteer flight left from Durango’s Animas Air Park and was piloted by Jim Grady, who flew a pair of curious journalists around in his 1953, red-and-white Cessna 180.
Hawkins explained there are three monitoring sites: one in the Dove Creek region and two in the Slickrock area of the Gypsum Valley and near Bedrock. Monitoring includes analyzing the impacts the release has had on downstream ecology, including vegetation and animals. The monitoring isn’t a simple process, Hawkins said, as it will take multiple years to fully collect data and turn it into practical action items, if necessary. She added there are some immediate results of the release such as plains being flooded from the excess water, and later down the system, receding waterlines as a result of the ramp down.
“A big purpose of that release was to do sediment flushing and habitat maintenance,” she said…
“I was on the river during the peak release. It was the highest I had seen it,” said Hawkins, who traversed the river between Bradfield and Slickrock. “It felt like a celebration. People were looking out for each other.”
During the flyover, the Dolores River curved and curled through the Earth’s patchwork quilt of forest, farmland and free-living.
Rafters and kayakers could be spotted in almost every area of the river, appearing more like multicolored specs than anything else…
Organizations like the nature conservancy and the Dolores River Conservancy District work with various stakeholders, including recreational groups like the Dolores River Boating Advocates (DRBA).
“DRBA has been working really hard on the release this year; both communication to boaters and also communication with water managers to help shape the management of the release,” Program Coordinator Amber Clark said.
Hawkins added farm irrigation systems will most likely not be affected by the release.
“We have worked very closely with the water managers and the water users out of McPhee Reservoir to make sure that they will have their full supplies this year,” she said.
The flight lasted just over two hours and featured more than just views of the raging Dolores. Houses and barns looked like mini Monopoly pieces with their red and green roofs. At one point, several elk could be seen bathing in an isolated lake just south of Bedrock. Aerial views of the Ponderosa Gorge and Paradox Valley revealed several changes in colors throughout the rock walls; from tans to browns to reds, including greens from the area’s flora.