An unlikely coalition is working to protect Colorado’s Dolores River
The Dolores River winds north out of Dolores, Colorado, starting in the ponderosa forests at 7,000 feet and meandering its way through red rock layers until it reaches the Colorado River east of Moab, Utah. But in dry years, there is barely any water in the river.
Most of the water from the Dolores River ends up in Mcphee Reservoir, just outside of the town of Dolores, and is diverted south to water fields and ranches in Cortez, the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, and Dove Creek, the former of the two are outside of the Dolores River watershed.
Any leftover water by then is in the San Juan River basin, leaving very little for the lower Dolores River.
A Nearly Two-Decade Collaboration
In 2022, legislation for a National Conservation Area (NCA) along the lower Dolores River was first introduced to Congress by Democratic Senator Michael Bennet. The legislation had been in the works since 2008 by a bipartisan group of stakeholders known as the Lower Dolores Working Group, which included Senator Bennet’s staff members.
“The Lower Dolores Working Group included water districts like Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company and Dolores Water Conservancy District, and… the Ute Mountain Ute tribe and ranchers and motorized recreation folks and conservation folks and private property owners, basically anyone that could be affected by whatever happens with the river corridor,” said Jeff Widen in a Daily Yonder interview. Widen is a senior regional conservation representative for the Wilderness Society and one of the original members of the working group.
Every stakeholder who was interviewed by the Daily Yonder for this story expressed their support for the current legislation. The common thread was that this bill brought people together across political lines and social divides. The past fifteen years have been spent in conversation and collaboration to make something that every party supports.
But another common refrain was that this bill is delicate. A few changes could make it all fall apart, said Widen.
The legislation was reintroduced in 2023, with an identical bill being introduced in the House soon after by Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert. In July 2023, the bill had a hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Widen hopes that the bill will get a markup, where they make any agreed-upon changes, in November, but “you never actually know until it happens,” said Widen. The House of Representatives bill has not yet had a hearing due to the just-recently-resolved lack of a House Speaker.
Protecting the Values and Interests of Everyone Involved
The Lower Dolores Working Group originally started as a Wild and Scenic Suitability study in the mid-2000s. The Dolores River, below Mcphee Dam, was given Wild and Scenic River suitability in 1976 and again in 2013. However, local consensus was against Wild and Scenic designation because the designation comes with a water right, which many farmers and ranchers in the area worried would take their allotments of water away, despite the new water right being far junior to any already established.
The National Conservation Area legislation trades Wild and Scenic suitability for similar protections in the form of a National Conservation Area and a Special Management Area (SMA) without the water right for the river. Management Area (SMA). The SMA would exist on Forest Service-managed land, while the NCA would exist on Bureau of Land Management land.
“I felt like there was a threat from Wild and Scenic,” said Al Heaton, a rancher who runs cattle along the Dolores River and an original member of the Lower Dolores Working Group.
“I feel like this legislation, if we can get it through, protects a lot of the things that Wild and Scenic would protect without threatening some of the other values and uses.”
The legislation would create an Advisory Council made up of local stakeholders to provide input to land managers, similar to the Lower Dolores Plan Working Group. This way, the NCA and SMA would be managed according to the values and uses of all stakeholders. “The lands belong to everyone. They need to be used respectfully, but they need to be available to all uses,” said Steve Garchar, Dolores County Commissioner.
In June 2023, many of the members of the Lower Dolores Plan Working Group and stakeholders in the future of the Dolores River had the opportunity to float the river. For some, it was the umpteenth time on the river, but this specific trip was an opportunity to introduce Senator Michael Bennet, his staff, and his family to the river they were all fighting to protect. Other attendees included Democratic Senator Hickenlooper, county commissioners from four different counties, representatives from various conservation groups, land managers, and more.
“You’re talking about a very diverse set of people. San Miguel County headquarters, their County seat is in Telluride. Dolores County’s seat is in Dove Creek. You couldn’t find two more economically and culturally different counties, and yet they became really fast partners in trying to get this legislation done,” said Mike Preston, Ute Mountain Ute water consultant. He has been involved with the working group from the beginning when he was the manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District
The NCA and SMA would come with protections for the values and interests of all of the involved parties. The proposed legislation would honor existing mining and logging claims but prevent future claims within the protected area. Livestock grazing will continue to be managed as it currently exists through the BLM. New dams on the Dolores or its tributaries will be prohibited. The legislation also requires land managers to manage the NCA and SMA with the benefit of native fish in mind.
The collaborative nature of this legislation is very evident in the way those involved have come to care about each other’s interests. Widen, who works for a nonprofit dedicated to the wilderness, says he “will be one of the ones defending [Al Heaton’s] grazing allotment if anyone ever tries to challenge it because we worked together for so many years, and that’s the agreement we made.”
What about the Water?
However, the NCA legislation does not address the fact that there is not enough water in the river, which affects the fish populations and the broader ecosystem.
In an analysis of biodiversity on unprotected public lands across Colorado, it was found that the Dolores River Canyon is the largest and most biologically diverse unprotected publicly-owned landscape in Colorado. However, much of the area with the highest biodiversity falls outside of the currently proposed NCA and SMA land in Montrose and Mesa Counties to the north.
“The Dolores River is over appropriated by a long shot,” said Widen.”
“Unless there’s a big heavy precipitation year, all the water is spoken for. There is no extra water in the river physically in an average year.”
The NCA, while it does protect the free-flowing nature of the Lower Dolores and its tributaries, which includes the San Miguel River, does not address the instream flow issues. The lower Dolores, from Mcphee Dam to the confluence with the San Miguel River, has the poorest native fish population of any large Western Colorado river.
“The low flows on the Dolores…are the single biggest threat to the Dolores River, but they’re not the only threat,” said Mike Fiebig, director of the Southwest River Protection Program at American Rivers, “There’s still plenty of other things that could damage that river, whether it’s further dams or diversions out basin, oil and gas development within the river corridor, or mining development.”
The water issues in the Dolores River are a microcosm of what’s happening across the whole Colorado River Basin, said Rica Fulton, advocacy and stewardship director for Dolores River Boating Advocates. But to get more water into the river will require some creativity.
“The only way to get more water is for someone to give up their water rights or sell ’em,” said Widen. He sees the potential for willing water rights holders to sell or lease water rights for the river itself. But this would require interested and willing water rights owners.
The Colorado Water Trust is a Colorado-based nonprofit that does just this, working with landowners who want to use some or all of their water rights to benefit the river, using short or long-term leases or loans. Tony LaGreca, stewardship manager for the Colorado Water Trust, says that due to the complexity of the Dolores River, the tools they use for other river projects won’t work effectively.
This is primarily because of the sheer amount of water that would need to be leased or purchased to get the river up to even its baseline flow. Also, because there are no large municipalities or economic drivers downstream, “we’re really limited to the strictly environmental and recreational benefits, which are not very high on a lot of people’s list of benefits, and generally don’t draw big dollars,” said LaGreca.
There is potential for farmers and ranchers to let fields go fallow for a year and lease their water without losing rights, which could put more water in the river while also helping with additional income. “They could probably get just as much if not more money for their water than what they would get for a cutting of alfalfa,” said Fulton.
Another potential way for more water to end up downstream would be if one or more of the native fish in the Dolores was put on the Endangered Species list, which could mandate the government to release more water from Mcphee Dam to preserve the fish population, said Fulton. This is not a popular option for landowners and water rights holders and is one of the reasons that fish are a main priority for protection with the NCA legislation.
But even though the NCA legislation does not address getting more water into the river, this bill is an example of community-led conservation and compromise, said Fulton. No one got everything they wanted, but everyone has something they feel good about supporting.
“The Dolores is a really special place,” said Fiebig. “In an era of increasing climate change where rivers are receiving less moisture…protections like this are something that we need to do. We need to do more of them, not less of them.”
This story was produced through the Daily Yonder Rural Reporting Fellowship with support from the LOR Foundation. LOR works with people in rural places to improve their quality of life. This story was shared with KSUT via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico, including KSUT.