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Conservation momentum surges for Dolores River as record flows draw rafters

Boaters float past ancient sandstone cliffs formed in the Jurassic Era inside Dolores River Canyon, Apr. 23, 2023, near Bedrock. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)
Survey shows growing support for a national monument around Colorado’s Dolores River Canyon Country

BEDROCK – This month’s swirling flow in the Dolores River is mostly snowmelt from the Disappointment Creek basin that drains almost 350 square miles of the western San Juans before joining the meandering Dolores through miles of dramatic Wingate Sandstone canyon.

So … disappointment feeds the River of Sorrows.

“Sounds like someone had a bad time down here,” says Rica Fulton, the advocacy and stewardship director for Dolores River Boating Advocates, jesting from her bobbing boat deep in the Dolores Canyon.

“Kinda hard to imagine right now, isn’t it?” says moviemaker and longtime Dolores River advocate Cody Perry, manning the oars of the raft as he and Fulton, his wife, bask in the shadows and light dancing on 1,100-foot red sandstone cliffs.

Hard times are common for the Dolores River, where dwindling water supplies in a warming climate offer only feeble leftovers for almost 200 miles of river canyon below McPhee Reservoir. But this winter’s bountiful snowpack is expected to float thousands of boats on the river that rarely sees navigable flows. The Dolores River’s expected deluge of rubber-riding boaters is fueling momentum from more than 40 years of collaboration and advocacy to safeguard one of the state’s last unprotected expanses of public wildlands around the so-called River of Sorrows.

There are two pieces of legislation from Colorado’s federal lawmakers – an unlikely pairing of Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert and Democratic U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper – vying to establish a new conservation area on the upper section of the river. A new movie by Perry – “The River of Sorrows” – is touring the state with dramatic visuals of the barely trickling Dolores last year.

And there’s a new proposal to establish a national monument on the Dolores River as it moves through Dolores, Montezuma, San Miguel, Montrose and Mesa counties before meeting the Colorado River in Utah.

“We are seeing local and broad support for landscape-scale protection,” said Scott Braden, whose Colorado Wildlands Project supports the proposed National Conservation Area legislation that protects 68,000 acres around the Lower Dolores. “We did the polling because we want something bigger.”

Many residents in western Colorado also want something bigger. The Colorado Wildlands Project enlisted Keating Research to survey residents in five western Colorado counties: Dolores, Mesa, Montezuma, Montrose and San Miguel. The March survey of 750 voters – 450 in those counties and 300 inside the state’s 3rd Congressional District represented by Boebert – shows a strong majority supporting a new national monument across the entirety of the 184-mile river, covering more than 500,000 acres.

When voters were given details of a possible Dolores River Canyon County National Monument – protecting red rock canyons, ancient ponderosa forests, desert wilderness and the entire watershed – 75% of residents in the 3rd Congressional District and 73% of residents in the five counties supported the designation.

“This is a unique, popular thing that you rarely see: an issue that is commonly supported across such a broad spectrum especially among people who maybe don’t agree on other issues,” Jake Martin with Keating Research said.

Braden said the support for the monument reveals a growing call to better protect water, wildlife and wildlands in Colorado, regardless of political affiliation.

The 36-mile stretch through the 28,539-acre Dolores River Canyon Wilderness Study Area is filled with Willows, reed, oaks, sagebrush, pinion, and juniper. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)
National Conservation Area legislation

There is a vibrant history of uranium mining around the Dolores River in the West End of Montrose County and any protections that could interfere with mining uranium and vanadium in the 70-mile Uravan mineral belt would be contentious. (The monument proposal, while still only an idea, steers clear of any implications for existing mines in the region and proposed National Conservation Area legislation along the river would allow existing permit holders to operate.)

The West End was a key player in the Cold War as the U.S. ramped up its nuclear arsenal, fueling a short boom for the rural economy as dozens of mines churned out uranium for nuclear bombs and power. The uranium boom still lingers in the minds of hardscrabble locals in the region who are keen to see a spike in uranium prices that might revive a long-dormant mining economy.

The legislation proposed this year by Bennet and Hickenlooper in the Senate and Boebert in the House – her largest public lands protection bill – would protect more than 68,000 acres along the Dolores River from McPhee Dam to the Montrose County line at the Big Gypsum Valley, where the river enters the Bureau of Land Management’s 30,000-acre Dolores River Canyon Wilderness Study Area established in 1980.

The National Conservation Area plan originally had support from Dolores, Montezuma, Montrose and San Miguel counties as well as the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. (The legislation’s 68,000 acres of proposed protection do not include any of the Dolores River canyonlands in Montrose or Mesa counties.) Then Montrose and Montezuma counties dropped out. Then Montezuma rejoined as the legislation was negotiated and adjusted, per Bennet’s focus on consensus when crafting public lands legislation like his CORE Act.

Rica Fulton, Advocacy and Stewardship Director of Dolores River Boating Advocates, rows inside Dolores River Canyon in April. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

The legislation does not impact the complicated web of water rights connected to the McPhee Dam, which altered the flow of the Dolores River when it was built as a storage reservoir to irrigate some 61,000 acres in southwestern Colorado. The proposed conservation legislation prevents any more new dams or mines and creates a roadless area in Ponderosa Gorge to be managed “in a manner that maintains the wilderness character” of the remote chasm with massive ponderosa trees.

The Dolores was the first river in Colorado to be considered under the 1968 legislation that created the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers program that gives Congress authority to preserve elected rivers with “outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values.”

The completion of the McPhee Dam in 1984 fouled hopes for Wild and Scenic designation of the Dolores River’s upper section above the dam.

U.S. Geological Survey

But the BLM has repeatedly noted that the Lower Dolores River is suitable for Wild and Scenic designation below McPhee. The BLM Grand Junction Field Office’s Resource Management Plan from 2015 noted the river’s recreation, scenery, several threatened fish species, the rare canyon tree frog, several prehistoric archaeological sites and “dramatic Cretaceous sandstone cliffs” as “outstandingly remarkable values” that make the canyons below the reservoir eligible for Wild and Scenic protections.

The Dolores River carved a canyon over many millions of years, revealing eons of layers, mostly dark red Wingate sandstone beneath the muddy Kayenta layer. Much of the Lower Dolores Canyon is topped by the frothy white Navajo sandstone.

The river is heavily salted by underground remnants of ancient seas and a desalination plant on the river in the Paradox Valley draws briny water and injects it into a 16,000-foot deep well. The Bureau of Reclamation’s Paradox Valley Unit suspended the salt-removing operation in June 2019 following a 4.5-magnitude earthquake. The plant resumed limited operations last year.

Wild and Scenic designation off the table

Wild and Scenic protections establish a federal water right, which could muddy complex water rights on the Dolores River. The legislation proposed this year removes consideration of Wild and Scenic designation from the proposed national conservation area. Boebert said in a statement that she introduced her companion national conservation bill in the House – which is identical to the legislation crafted by Bennet and Hickenlooper, who first proposed the conservation legislation in June 2022 – because it ensures traditional uses and protects private water rights.

Conservation and recreation groups are supporting the National Conservation Area and Special Management Area in the stretch below McPhee Dam, even though it ends a more than 40-year effort to establish that section of the river as Wild and Scenic.

Fulton, sitting around a riverside campfire beneath a sea of stars, says the National Conservation Area legislation is a “good compromise with a lot of good conservation pieces.”

There are evidence of human use inside the Dolores River Canyon, dating back to at least 11,000 years ago, through rock art and other remains, such as this pictograph at Shaman Cave. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

Dolores River Boating Advocates has not weighed in on the new idea of a national monument for the Dolores River. Really no one has yet. A monument could be created by either Congress or the president, who could use the Antiquities Act to establish the new monument, just as President Joe Biden did last fall with the 53,804-acre Camp Hale – Continental Divide National Monument. Biden also used the Antiquities Act to create national monuments in Nevada and Texas in recent months.

The National Conservation Area legislation delivers a level of certainty, Fulton says. For decades, portions of the Dolores River have been part of a wilderness study area. That designation can be removed as land managers reevaluate resource and travel management plans every couple decades or so.

“Protections do not have to mean closing a place off. It’s really just rethinking how you are managing a place,” she says, speaking up to be heard above the rumbling river a feet away. “Sometimes when you say ‘Oh we are protecting this place and we are adding conservation measures,’ people get really guarded. But really it’s just coming together to rethink how you can better manage an area.”

Decreasing water supplies in a warming climate have delivered smaller allotments for holders of junior water rights on the Dolores River. That also means there is less water in the river for ecological protection and recreation. Many years the river below the dam does not run at all. A minimal flow requirement in the river below McPhee Reservoir is a junior right, so in seasons when the reservoir does not fill, which is increasingly often, the river can see a mere trickle, wreaking havoc on threatened, warm-water fish species in the Lower Dolores.

The fickle flows on the Dolores have united a one-of-a-kind collaboration of conservation groups, wildlife managers and recreational users working with water rights holders to negotiate releases from McPhee Dam that can help both the environment as well as float a few boats.

Liz and Sam DuQuette, of Grand Junction, investigate a smoldering and abandoned campfire site inside Dolores River Canyon in April. The pair went onshore and doused the fire, which damaged sandstone rock from the flying embers. Travelers in the wilderness canyon are required to use a fire pan. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

The Lower Dolores River Implementation, Monitoring and Evaluation Plan for Native Fish, released in 2014 after a decade of drought that saw few releases from McPhee Dam into the Lower Dolores, involved a diverse group of river users and fans. The collaboration’s so-called “A Way Forward Plan” created a committee to help manage releases from the dam and created a model for gathering agricultural water users with conservation and recreation advocates. Still, releases are increasingly rare as a prolonged drought threatens fertile fields. Boaters hoping to float the Dolores are often chasing a ghost, with capricious flows disappearing with the turn of a dial far upstream.

‘Recreation is how you begin to love a place’

This spring, federal water watchers reported the highest recorded snow-water equivalent in the Dolores River Basin, with the basin’s snowpack reaching 237% of median in late April. The dam will not start releasing water until May and already the rafters have flocked to one of the few wilderness, multiday floats in the West that do not require a permit. (And land managers are reporting record-spikes in applications for permits, leaving hundreds of rafters unable to access the most popular rivers. That could very likely increase boater days on the Dolores River.)

A group of packrafters float into the Dolores River Canyon in San Miguel County. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

The crowds are coming, which poses a challenge for the understaffed BLM offices that manage the land around the Dolores River. But the hordes of visitors are a good thing, Fulton says.

“Recreation is how you begin to love a place and learn about a place. It’s hard to care about something you’ve never seen,” she says. “The Dolores is the heart of this amazing landscape and a lot of it is so wild and remote that the only way you can really get here is through the river. The fact that it runs so rarely, maybe once every five years, makes this a really special opportunity to see this place for a sustained period of time.”

McPhee Reservoir is filling fast, climbing more than foot a day in the last half of April. The water managers at McPhee last week announced they would begin releasing 1,200 cubic feet per second a day into the Lower Dolores on April 28. Early projections estimate the daily flows could last four weeks.

There’s so much water filling McPhee that boaters, conservation groups and wildlife officials are working with water managers on a spill committee to negotiate a possible high-water pulse that could help purge dense willows and help repair the river channel in the canyons below the dam. A high-water release could benefit the ecology of the remote canyons, but it may shave the number of release days from the dam, essentially shortening the boating season.

The River of Sorrows filmmaker Cody Perry paddles inside Dolores River Canyon in April. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Several sections of the Dolores River Canyon is 1,100 deep with exposed layers of sedimentary rock dating nearly 300 million years of Earth’s history. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

Water is what enables people to access the Dolores River Canyon country. It’s a different experience without a boat. Perry, a co-founder and filmmaker with Rig to Flip, a media company that makes documentaries to inspire stewardship of rivers in the Colorado River Basin, says a raft is the tool that helps visitors learn more about the Dolores River.

“The experience is also defined by these terrestrial values around the river and we just spent all day craning our necks and just marveling at the geology of this canyon,” he says, lounging at the fire next to Fulton and their dog, Harper. “Part of the most basic but fundamental recreational experience is just observing everything in here.”

Last year Perry filmed a pair of intrepid packrafters navigating the Dolores River from McPhee Dam to the Colorado River as the dam released a trickling 7 cubic feet per second. The Lower Dolores River didn’t run last year as McPhee water was sent to agricultural users. They carried their Alpacka rafts through dry, rocky channels that churn with whitewater when McPhee spills. They clawed through thickets lining the trickling river and visited the canyons’ many petroglyphs and pictographs, revealing the stories of people who wandered the meandering canyons more than a thousand years ago.

He’s touring with “The River of Sorrow” in the next couple months, with stops ahead in Golden, Grand Junction and Durango. At the Boulder Theater last week, a full house roared as river advocates kicked off the Protect The Dolores campaign, which is gathering public support for both the National Conservation Area legislation and the nascent monument proposal.

“People won’t protect what they don’t understand,” Perry says after boisterous applause for his movie.

“Everybody loves this river,” says Amber Clark, the executive director of Dolores River Boating Advocates, during a Q&A after the film premiere at the Boulder Theater. “You can find common ground with people you think very differently from because they love the river.”

Perry just landed a seasonal gig as a ranger for the Dolores River. The last time the BLM helped fund a ranger position was in 2019, when a record number of boaters flocked to the river for more than 40 days of releases from McPhee. He will be helping boaters prepare for their wilderness floats through delicate canyonlands. He’s a personable guy with a perpetual grin and an unwavering passion for the Dolores River. He can’t wait to help others kindle their own passion for the remote canyons on the River of Sorrows.

“It’s so important that people see it so they understand the value of this place and they are able to sew their own relationships with this river and their loved ones to make it an impactful experience that they will carry on and care about and vote for,” he says, glancing between the embers of his fire and a vivid Milky Way above the canyon walls. “It’s just such a special place.”

Read more at The Colorado Sun

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.