From the San Juan Mountains in Southwest Colorado flows a river that descends through the towns of Rico and Dolores before coming to an abrupt halt in McPhee Reservoir.
The lower section of the Dolores River, a section regulated by the McPhee Dam, will run after a year of record snowfall. On Memorial Day weekend, boaters got their gear ready to take on the mighty Lower Dolores River as water levels began to ramp up. And while many perceive this excess of precipitation as a win, one good season is not enough to repair the impact that drought has had, and will continue to have, on the region.
The Importance of the Lower Dolores River
When floating the Dolores River, it’s easy to recognize the sheer beauty of the area through which this river flows. For 170 miles, the Dolores River meanders through limestone and sandstone canyons carved over the course of millions of years. Hidden within these walls is a rich history comprised of scattered archaeological sites. And massive, old-growth Ponderosa pines dot the riverside early on, before giving way to the rocky desert landscape and joining the Colorado River near Dewey Bridge in Utah.
It is for this wild landscape, the diverse ecosystems and the ever-changing whitewater that boaters keep a close eye on whether the Dolores will release that year.
“It’s just as amazing as everyone says,” said Hattie Johnson, the Southern Rockies Stewardship Director for American Whitewater.
Currently, organizations such as American Whitewater and Dolores River Boating Advocates (DRBA), to name a few, are working to pass a bill that would protect the Lower Dolores River below McPhee Dam. The bill was introduced in 2013 and is currently attempting to make its way to Congress. If enacted into law, the bill would designate this section of the Dolores River as a National Conservation Area and Wilderness. But like many other bills, there are opponents to this idea for concerns of water rights and federal regulations.
“Discussions around the Dolores have always been and continue to be very complicated because there are a lot of different interests, a lot of different stakeholders and, frankly, there’s not enough water to satisfy all of those,” explains Amber Clark, the executive director of DRBA. “We have been very committed to working collaboratively with the full range of stakeholders and want to continue to do that.”
Despite the tension that can stem from water rights in the Southwest, DRBA strives to work with all parties involved in the future of the Lower Dolores River.
“We work on boating issues related to the Dolores and we also care about the ecosystem, we care about the fish,” Clark said. “We’re really just here to be a voice for the river.”
One of the biggest concerns that circles within discussions around the Lower Dolores River is that of the native fish.
The main issues arise during spawning season. The warming of the water downstream from the dam alerts the fish that it is time to spawn; however, water released from the dam in the spring tends to be much colder and can ruin the spawning season. This water can also wash fish eggs downstream and make it difficult for juvenile fish to survive.
Thermal suppression flows would help alleviate this problem. Thermal suppression flows work by releasing small amounts of water to keep the river downstream cool enough to prevent fish from beginning their spawn until after the big dam release occurs.
The Roundtail chub, Flannelmouth sucker and the Bluehead sucker are three native fish that continue to be a part of the conservation dialogue on the Lower Dolores. Currently, none of these fish are listed as endangered, but it’s certainly a concern moving forward.
“We’re trying to address the fish before something like that happens and hope that it won’t,” Clark said. “The flows below McPhee are pretty low for most of the year, and so that’s part of the problem.”
For the boater, getting the opportunity to get out on the Lower Dolores River is a dream come true. The window to do so, if the dam releases that season, is very small.
“In general, our lowest acceptable flow is 800-900 cfs,” Johnson said. “The optimal flow range is anywhere from 1,900 cfs to 2,500 cfs, and basically — based on the (boating) surveys — there isn’t a flow that’s too high. 5,000 cfs is what the reservoir can safely spill without having dam safety issues; but around that 2,000 cfs is a good sweet spot.”
So keep your eye on the snowpack and water levels in McPhee Reservoir, and be ready to head out when the Dolores Water Conservancy District starts issuing announcements regarding dam release.
If you can’t commit to the entire 170-mile section, make sure that the Ponderosa Gorge makes your trip itinerary. This stretch is one of Johnson’s favorites.
“It’s the section right below the reservoir,” Johnson said. “It’s so different-looking from any other river canyon I’ve been on. It’s really impressive. The ponderosas are massive, it’s moving, it’s a consistent, fun time.”
Putting the Two Together
Finding a balance between ecological benefits and optimal boating flows is not always easy, but on the Dolores, the two go hand-in-hand better than expected.
“There has been a lot of collaboration being done to look at what are some good goals for the ecology down there and how do those mesh with boating,” Clark said. “We work really closely with other stakeholders when there are releases to figure how to recommend the best management that benefits boating and the ecology.”
When it comes to thermal suppression flows, it might not make sense to release smaller amounts of water prior to the boating season, but sometimes all it takes is a little education and understanding from the boater’s perspective to see the benefits of the shorter releases in the long run.
“Generally we feel like what’s good for the ecology is good for boating,” Clark said. “So we haven’t had a whole lot of conflict, and in some cases the boating community has said, ‘Yeah we can support suppression flows.’”
For American Whitewater, research and science is crucial to finding a balance between ecological and environmental benefits and ideal whitewater boating levels on the Lower Dolores.
“We specifically strive to use science-based approaches to protect whitewater rivers … not specifically being like ‘this is a rad place to boat,’” Johnson said. “There’s science, ecological and environmental benefits. We’re big advocates for the stewardship ethic that’s grown out of that recreation nexus.”
The Future of the Dolores
It’s difficult to say what will happen with the Lower Dolores River in years to come, but it’s important to remember that one great year of precipitation cannot pull the Southwest from the throes of drought in the long run.
“It’s likely that the drought will continue,” Clark said. “It’s likely that we will see more smaller releases, and we really want to continue to work with water managers to make those the best possibly thing for boaters and also for the river itself. I think it’s going to continue to be complicated.”
With the future of the Lower Dolores up in the air, it’s important to keep in mind that now is the time to get out and enjoy this wild and scenic section of river; because if you wait too long, you might not get another chance.
What You Can Do
Organizations such as American Whitewater and DRBA run on volunteers and donations. If you are interested in volunteering, visit their websites for upcoming volunteer opportunities and events.
And as always, practicing Leave No Trace while out on the Lower Dolores is crucial for the recreation and use of future generations. Do your part to ensure that all trash is picked up when leaving a riverside campsite, and follow proper boating protocol. Bring a groover (portable toilet) and a fire pan. Pee in the river, not on shore.
Since permits are currently not issued on the Lower Dolores, weekends can get crowded. Be polite and helpful at the put-in. Make room for other groups to launch, and when on the river, give each boat a little space. This will ensure that everyone has a positive experience while recreating on the Lower Dolores.
To check water levels and scheduled dam releases on the Lower Dolores River, visit the Dolores Water Conservancy District.