The fickle Dolores River is emblematic of Western water woes, where increasing recreation demands and calls for conservation clash with traditional uses that quench arid towns and farms.
That tension has created conflict in the past, as the river veers from tidal to trickle. There’s no other way to see Slickrock Canyon except by boat, and without raft-floating flows, the canyon is essentially closed.
But, recently, the Dolores River water wrangling has yielded collaboration. And this year, after more than a decade of planning, a diverse team of water users — including water managers, farmers, boaters, conservationists, ecologists and land managers — have galvanized to celebrate and study more than 60 days of boatable flows, creating one of the most vibrant seasons in recent memory on the miles of varying Dolores River below McPhee.
“It’s been a ghost and you have to chase it,” said Schafer, the Western Slope advocacy director for Conservation Colorado, who first navigated Slickrock Canyon during a quick, small release last year. “These last couple years have really opened my eyes to the complexities of Western water policy, the complexities of public land management and the complexities recreation management. But at the end of the day, the overwhelming experience is sheer and utter beauty. This is one of the most spectacular river canyons on the planet.”
The Lower Dolores River through Slickrock Canyon — traversing a 30,000-acre Bureau of Land Management wilderness study area — offers geology spanning hundreds of millions of years.
Entrenched channels carve through Wingate Sandstone, the Kayenta Formation and Navajo Sandstone layers that tower hundreds of feet above the river. Panels of petroglyphs and pictographs reveal the canyon’s millennia-old appeal. Ancestral Puebloan, Archaic and Fremont people frequented the remote canyon. Several pictographs and petroglyphs in the canyon show the horned Fremont Man and bear paws. Some of that artwork is near dinosaur tracks…
Those capricious flows have defined the Lower Dolores since the Bureau of Reclamation finished building the McPhee Dam in 1984. McPhee Reservoir, managed by the Dolores River Water Conservancy District, holds roughly 380,000 acre-feet of water, most of it allocated for agricultural use around the Four Corners region.
In 2004, Dolores River stakeholders gathered to forge a unified mission. The group included the water conservancy district; irrigation users; the Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the dam; the Bureau of Land Management; conservation groups; boater groups such as American Whitewater; and Colorado Parks and Wildlife. That mission outlined how the groups can work together to help boaters — who have a legal right to excess water in McPhee Reservoir — and ecologists eager to protect fish habitat while honoring water rights and allocations for irrigation and municipal uses…
It took almost a decade of meetings — during, incidentally, a prolonged drought that pretty much eliminated releases of unallocated water from McPhee — to hammer out a plan that bolstered fish habitat and maximized recreational flows for boaters.
The Lower Dolores Implementation, Monitoring and Evaluation Plan created a team that helped to manage releases. This year, with a healthy snowpack and good carryover water levels from the previous spring melt, American Whitewater helped negotiate significant releases from McPhee — from the end of March to May 21 and another surprise burst last week.
The surges, including a high-flow, three-day pulse of 4,000 cubic feet per second that limited the length of the boating season but helped restore riparian habitat, marked the largest releases since 2008. The flows drew wildlife scientists, conservationists and boaters in droves.
“We are trying to align everyone’s activities so they all fit together, and this was a really successful year for that effort,” said Michael Preston, manager of the Dolores River Water Conservancy District. “We had really great monitoring this season. We have a plan. We have objectives. We are going to start learning a great deal.”
The Nature Conservancy and Colorado Parks and Wildlife worked together in March to study the deeply channelized river bed before the big flow and then again in April and May to observe the river during a variety of flows. The hope was the big pulse and the sustained flows helped push the river out of its entrenched channel, allowing it to scour riverbanks of dense willows and alder, and restore eddies and backwaters…
Jim White, an aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, got onto the Dolores River below McPhee last month for the first time since 1990. He was looking for endemic populations of roundtail chub, bluehead sucker and flannelmouth sucker fish. He found all three in Slickrock Canyon. His team did not find any smallmouth bass, which can decimate native fish populations. That’s all good news…
“The main thing we want to do is make sure we don’t lose any more ground in terms of the fishery. The density of fish is pretty low, but all three species are present,” says White, who tagged more than 500 fish that can be followed through antennas set above and below Slickrock Canyon. “They are using the habitat in Slickrock and other sections of river. Having a good water year like this helped. Everyone was on the same page. The 4,000 cfs disrupted the channel and … created better fish habitat.”
While scientists surveyed fish, American Whitewater and the Dolores River Boating Advocates canvassed boaters. Conservationists and recreationists have united on the Dolores, merging their missions in a singular push for more water.
The boater survey is trying to quantify the economic impact of boaters rallying in the West End of Montrose County. Paddling advocates want to know whether the flows were announced early enough and whether the timing of the releases offered enough opportunity to float through the wild canyons of the Dolores River.
Early reports show crowding was not an issue, but boaters — almost all of them private paddlers — lamented the accessibility of potential campsites: unimproved sandy beaches that haven’t really been used for several years. Most of the river bank through Slickrock is densely armored with virtually impenetrable willows. Upstream, in Ponderosa Gorge, where the lush mountain river transitions to a red-walled desert canyon, impassable alder thickets guard the banks.
“American Whitewater negotiated a high-flow release, hoping it would help recover fish and habitat. That meant a shorter season. But we will trade a few days if we can get that water down there to work for a healthier ecology,” says American Whitewater’s Nathan Fey.
Rafters rally when the Dolores runs. They come from across the West, with trailers from several states stacked more than a hundred deep at the Bedrock takeout on a Sunday in mid-May…
With McPhee Reservoir pretty much full a month-and-a-half into irrigation season, there’s a good chance that releases will happen again next year, especially if winter snowpack is around normal. Water users, Preston says, are upgrading sprinkler technology, reducing irrigation demand.