McPhee still free of quaggas

Mcphee Reservoir

From The Durango Herald (Jim Mimiaga):

A coalition of local government agencies that formed to prevent an invasive mussel contamination at McPhee Reservoir can claim victory in its first year.

A test in October showed no sign of the dreaded quagga or zebra mussels, which proliferate rapidly and can attach in suffocating layers to irrigation and municipal infrastructure.

“With the help of the community, we have avoided contamination and protected our water source,” Ken Curtis, an engineer with the Dolores Water Conservancy District, said during a recent community meeting to gather public comment.

The success is credited to stringent new rules that require all motorized and trailered boats to go through mussel inspection stations at either the House Creek or McPhee boat ramps during open hours. Mussels are carried in standing water of engines and ballasts.

Restricted access changed the culture of McPhee access.

Boaters taking advantage of McPhee Reservoir with closures on other SW #Colorado flat-water

From The Cortez Journal:

McPhee Reservoir is seeing increased use this summer because of decreased opportunities for motorized boating on other Southwest Colorado reservoirs that have been closed to guard against the introduction of aquatic nuisance species, according to the San Juan National Forest.

And to accommodate boaters during the July Fourth holiday, the inspection station for the House Creek boat ramp will extend its hours to 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday through Tuesday, the forest said in a news release.

The inspection station at the more crowded McPhee boat ramp will remain open seven days a week from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. All other access points to McPhee Reservoir have been gated to prevent uninspected boats from entering the reservoir.

McPhee is one of a few reservoirs in Southwest Colorado with mussel inspection stations that allow for motorized boating, public affairs specialist Ann Bond said in the news release.

The McPhee boat ramp has seen an 85 percent increase in inspections this summer from last year, Bond said.

“Because of the increased usage, parking areas and boat ramps are experiencing congestion, especially on weekends,” she said. “The U.S. Forest Service urges visitors to use parking areas and ramps as efficiently as possible to lessen congestion.”

The Forest Service encourages boaters to prep their craft before launching to reduce time at the ramp and to follow traffic signs to ensure safety for all visitors. Boaters who park vehicles without trailers are asked to use overflow parking areas to leave the larger parking areas available for trailers. Weekday users will find less crowded conditions.

Weekend users are encouraged to use the House Creek boat ramp, which is often less crowded.

Inspection stations are working smoothly, with previously inspected boats carrying documentation and tags moving through the process within 10 minutes. Boats that have not been cleaned, drained and dried – and require decontamination procedures – are urged to enter inspection stations during weekdays, because the decontamination process takes more time.

For more information, contact Tom Rice at 970-882-6843.

Spring Flood on the River of Sorrows

Ponderosa Gorge, Dolores River. Photo credit

From The Nature Conservancy (John Sanderson):

Like a Frenchman knows good years and bad years for wine, I remember years in Colorado for their snowpack. In 1995, deep snow remained well into summer. In 2002, the snow never came and Coloradans were reminded of how bad drought can be. In 2011, the snow at my family’s favorite backcountry ski trailhead was still 10 feet deep in early May. In 2012, it was drought again; later that summer fires raged west of my home in Fort Collins.

Water from this snowpack is the proverbial lifeblood of Rocky Mountain rivers. In fact, water is the lifeblood of the entire economy of the West—for brewers in cities, for corn growers east of Fort Collins, and for angling guides in our high county. Competition for water can be fierce.

Residents of the Southwest weren’t yet competing for water in 1776 when two Spanish priests — Francisco Atanacio Dominguez and Silvestre Valez de Escalante — christened one of our lifeblood rivers, El Rio de Nuestra Senora de las Dolores. Better known as the Dolores — the Sorrows — many view this epithet as reflecting the current state of the river. In 1983, the gates closed on the McPhee Dam, one of the last projects during the United States Bureau of Reclamation’s era of big dams. Within a decade, a series of dry years came along and a fight exploded over the impacts of the dam on the ecology of the river.

With its origins in the high, remote mountains near Telluride in southwest Colorado, the Dolores is a river of extremes. Fed by snowmelt gushing off the Rocky Mountains, spring flood flows before the dam could reach 1000 times the low flows of late summer. The reason people dam rivers is to make the water supply — in this case irrigation water — more predictable. Capture the spring snowmelt in a reservoir. Send the water to farm fields later in the summer. That’s good for farmers. But it’s bad for native fish.

At the time of Dominguez and Escalante, only about half a dozen fish species lived in the 175 miles of river now below McPhee Dam. These fish are all built for extremes. Aerodynamic bodies help them withstand huge floods. Tolerance for hot temperatures allow them to wait out low, warm waters during drought. Some of these fish can detect chemical and electrical signals of their prey, so they can hunt in dark murky water. Many can live for decades, allowing populations to survive a string of bad years with little or no reproduction.

The best known native of the Dolores is America’s largest minnow: the Colorado pikeminnow. The pikeminnow can reach 6 feet long and weigh up to 80 pounds. One hundred years ago, pikeminnow were so abundant that fishermen would haul them out of rivers with pitchforks. Pikeminnow harvests even supported a commercial cannery near Yuma, Arizona. This species has been around for more than 3 million years. But after just a few decades of 20th century dam building, they were nearly extinct.

Releases from McPhee reservoir enabled a great Lower Dolores River early boating season

Dolores River watershed

Here’s a report from Jason Blevins writing for The Denver Post. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

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.

Mcphee Reservoir

#Runoff news: McPhee fills, rafting releases next week on the Dolores River

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

McPhee Reservoir managers have announced that rafting flows on the Dolores River below the dam will start up again for at least a few days next week.

On Monday, June 5, flows will begin ramping up by 100 cubic feet per second every three hours. By Tuesday noon, flows will be 800 cfs and continue until Thursday or Friday, possibly longer…

Record winter snowpack easily filled the reservoir and provided for a 52-day rafting season that ended May 25 so the reservoir could be topped off. But lingering high-mountain snows continue to provide ample runoff that is more than the reservoir can hold, so another release is necessary.

Curtis said the three-day release could extend to five or longer depending on inflows and weather. Managers will be giving daily updates beginning Monday on the release schedule.

The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center is predicting an increase of inflows into McPhee this weekend. Depending on actual volume, the latest rafting release could be up to a week or 10 days, officials said.

To accommodate boaters on multiday trips, ramp-downs for this release will be slower than usual, dropping 100 cfs per day to allow time for boaters to get off the river.

Piñon Project provides kids with rafting opportunity

Ponderosa Gorge, Dolores River. Photo credit

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

About a dozen kids from Montezuma and Dolores counties got to experience that adventure thanks to a partnership between the Piñon Project, Dolores River Boating Advocates and the Onward Foundation.

The May 20 trip down Ponderosa Gorge was organized for youth ages 9 to 17 in the Piñon Project mentoring program, and for many of them, it was a first…

Mild to Wild rafting gave the group a discount rate, and it was paid for thanks to a grant from the Onward Foundation.

The goal was to introduce kids to the thrill of rafting and show off the natural wonders of a river in their own backyard, said Amber Clark, program coordinator for the Dolores River Boating Advocates…

The daylong excursion coincided with Colorado’s First Public Lands Day.

A guided boating trip down the Lower Dolores was extra special, Lacourciere said, because a run depends on a water release from McPhee reservoir upstream.

Plus, it was an opportunity for kids to experience an outdoor activity that is often inaccessible for families because of the expense of the boating gear and required river skills.

#Runoff news: Boating season mostly over for the Dolores River

Mcphee Reservoir

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

By midnight May 23, flows will ramp down to 600 cubic feet per second, hold for 24 hours, then drop to 400 cfs after midnight on May 24. From there the river will drop to 200 cfs, then 75 cfs by Sunday May 28.

“Spring runoff forecasts have steadily dropped with the drier-than-normal weather,” said Ken Curtis, an engineer with the Dolores Water Conservancy District. “It is time to fill the reservoir.”

Curtis said there is a chance that early hot June weather could bring down the remaining snowpack very quickly, which could force a mini whitewater spill of boatable flows for four to six days in June…

A solid winter snowpack allowed for the reservoir to fill for farmers and provide for 52 days of whitewater boating below the dam. In mid-May, 4,000 cfs of flushing flows were released for 72 hours to benefit river ecology, including sediment clearing and channel scouring, which improves native fish habitat. There were seven days of optimal flow releases of around 2,000 cfs.

A year-in-review meeting is being planned by reservoir managers, boaters, and environmental groups to evaluate the season.

Bass flush
A plan by Colorado Parks and Wildlife to flush out small-mouth bass opens up a slight window for kayakable flows later in the summer.

In mid July, biologists want to use part of their reserved fish pool in McPhee reservoir to release 400 cfs for 3-4 days and disrupt the bass spawn. The bass are a threat to the flannelmouth and bluehead suckers and roundtail chub, preying on their young and competing for food sources.