Of native fish, farmers and floating boats

The Dolores River runs from the high peaks of the western San Juan and La Plata mountains, through the towns of Rico and Dolores, into McPhee Reservoir, then downstream through some of the most beautiful canyons around until it joins the San Miguel River near Naturita. It then heads north until is finally enters the Colorado River in Utah a few miles west of the state border with Colorado.

The river is truly one of the gems of western Colorado and is one of the most pristine and continuous wilderness river boating experiences in the West.

As most rivers in the West, it is also pushed and pulled in the attempt to meet the potentially conflicting needs and desires of a lot of people.

Since 1885, the water from the Dolores River has fed farms, ranches and communities in the Montezuma valley. This area is not in the Dolores basin, but is part of the McElmo Creek and San Juan River basins. In 1984, with the completion of the McPhee dam, the diversion of water from the Dolores to its neighboring river basin to the south increased. There are now 73,600 acres of farm and ranch land irrigated with Dolores River water outside the river’s basin.

Since time unknown, the Dolores River has been home to a variety of fish, some of which were once plentiful but are now in danger of disappearing, not only from the Dolores, but throughout the West. The numbers of native fish below McPhee have declined since the dam was built. These unique fish, found only in the Colorado River basin, are at risk of disappearing forever.

In 2004, the San Juan Citizens Alliance approached the Dolores Water Conservancy District, and together, the two organizations set up a public process to wrestle with Dolores River water issues, known as the Dolores River Dialogue. For the last few years, this diverse group has been working to find ways to protect the water rights of the farmers and ranchers, the ability to boat and fish through the canyons below McPhee, and the continued existence of the native fish and a healthy river ecosystem.

An outgrowth group was formed to focus on the issue of native fish and just came out with the Lower Dolores River Implementation, Monitoring and Evaluation Plan For Native Fish.

The plan looks at the causes for the decline in native fish, and lays out a variety of opportunities for ensuring their survival, while meeting the needs of water rights holders, boaters and fishermen. An overview, and the complete report, can be found at http://ocs.fortlewis.edu/drd.

Finding solutions through a locally driven, diverse stakeholder process is to everyone’s benefit. The alternative is a legally driven, antagonistic process that will produce winners and losers.

One option requires and builds community, the other can destroy it.

The plan is an important step toward finding workable answers to old questions. The complete report is big and complex, but the overview is clearly written and is highly suggested reading for everyone interested in the Dolores River and our region.

dan@sanjuancitizens.org. Dan Randolph is executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.