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Montezuma County gets on board with federal plan to protect Dolores River land

The Dolores River Canyon is included in a proposed National Conservation Area. (Courtesy photo)
Water district opposes Bennet legislation to protect canyon below McPhee Reservoir

The Montezuma County Board of County Commissioners has joined Dolores and San Miguel counties in support of the proposed Dolores River National Conservation Area below McPhee Dam.

However, the idea lacks full support from the Dolores Water Conservancy District, which operates McPhee Reservoir upstream of the proposed boundary.

The Dolores River NCA bill would prohibit new development for about 75 miles of the scenic river canyon stretching from McPhee Dam to Big Gypsum Valley. It would include the tributaries of Summit and McIntyre canyons.

The bill was drafted by the office of U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, in collaboration with local counties and stakeholders and is expected to be introduced soon.

“We are making a commitment to move forward on the legislative process, and continue to circle back to the counties we represent to make decisions and modifications,” said John Whitney, a legislative aide for Bennet.

The Dolores River NCA would help protect more than 45,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management and San Juan National Forest lands in Montezuma, Dolores and San Miguel counties. The draft also would create a 10,828-acre special management area in a national forest section of the canyon on the west side of the Glade.

The draft bill would prohibit new development including mines, oil and gas development, large dams, roads and commercial logging within NCA boundaries in the Dolores Canyon. It would protect water rights, ranching, agriculture, recreational boating and fishing, and nonmotorized and motorized activities.

The Dolores River snakes through canyons below McPhee Dam. One idea to protect the area is to create a National Conservation Area.
A raft enters Snaggletooth Rapid on the Lower Dolores River. Draft legislation proposes to create a National Conservation Area for the Lower Dolores where it flows through Montezuma, Dolores and San Miguel counties.

The draft bill does not include a new water right and would not increase flows from McPhee Dam. It does not affect reservoir operations or irrigation infrastructure, and does not include private property.

According to the draft, that portion of the Dolores River would be removed from the “suitability” status as a potential federal Wild and Scenic River.

The potential for a federal Wild and Scenic River designation, which usually needs congressional approval, has long concerned upstream water managers because it could come with a new federal water right.

“We are incredibly excited and see it as a grand compromise that is the best way forward. It removes consideration of a wild and scenic river forever in exchange for the NCA protection,” Whitney said.

Sep 17, 2021
Proposed Dolores River National Conservation Area limits some uses, preserves others
Sep 13, 2021
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet releases draft bill to protect Lower Dolores River
Feb 15, 2015
Lower Dolores proposal criticized

In a June 7 letter to Bennet, Montezuma County commissioners Jim Candelaria, Kent Lindsay and Gerald Koppenhafer stated:

“By supporting the proposal for an NCA, it is Montezuma County’s intent to ensure that portions of the lower Dolores River that run through Montezuma, Dolores, and San Miguel Counties will not be designated as Wild and Scenic, and it is our position that the NCA proposal sets forth an acceptable compromise between the various stakeholders interested in utilizing water and land resources in and along the Dolores River.”

The commissioners stated Wild and Scenic “would result in significant consequences for water users and other groups seeking to access natural resources along the river corridor.”

The county is satisfied that the NCA proposal protects “the Dolores River and the interests of the various stakeholders that it serves, including water users, agricultural entities, local governments, OHV users, conservation groups and recreationists,” the letter states.

A portion of the NCA bill has drawn scrutiny from Montezuma County and the Dolores Water Conservancy District.

The draft retains a Section 7 regulatory component of the Wild and Scenic River’s Act. The section restricts large water development projects upstream of the NCA boundaries that “unreasonably diminish” values of the Dolores River.

That could present a legal challenge against larger upstream water projects, such as the proposed Plateau Creek pump-back storage hydroelectric project, county officials said. The preliminary concept for the project, estimated to cost more than $1 billion, would require at least one additional reservoir. It has not been officially proposed.

The commissioners worked to eliminate “ambiguous” language in the NCA bill that could restrict larger water development projects upstream, but hit “a wall” during negotiations, said county attorney Ian MacLaren.

Overall, commissioners felt the NCA bill was a reasonable deal.

“In negotiations, you don’t get everything you want. By supporting this we get rid of Wild and Scenic and also have a seat at the table for the NCA management plan. That is really important for us to be involved,” said Commissioner Jim Candelaria in a phone interview.

The Dolores Water Conservancy District concluded in a review that it did not support the Dolores River NCA legislation, specifically citing the restrictions on water development upstream.

“Unfortunately the draft bill does not, in our view, provide any relief from the current restrictions of Wild and Scenic suitability designation,” stated DWCD President Godwin Oliver in an April 20 letter to Bennet.

“Although DWCD supports the important land use provisions of the draft bill, because the bill would not alter the substantive provisions of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and continues the application of Wild and Scenic Rivers Act Section 7 analysis above McPhee dam upstream of the proposed conservation area, DWCD cannot fully endorse draft legislation at this time.”

Section 7’s promise that the NCA would not “unreasonably diminish” upstream development has already been in place for decades as part of the current “suitability status,” and it has not affected any project, the commissioners said.

Montezuma County’s decision to support the NCA is a reversal of the previous commission, which opposed the draft plan in 2015, citing legal interpretations that could affect future water development upstream. They withdrew from discussions, and the Montezuma County portion from Bradfield Bridge to the dam was removed from an earlier draft.

With the new support, that portion will be included within the NCA boundaries. The county and DWCD will be represented on an advisory board for the NCA if the bill passes.

The proposed Dolores River NCA also has support from local river and conservation groups.

“(The NCA) would protect wildlife habitat, cultural and historical resources, existing uses of the land and enhance local economies well into the future,” stated Amber Clark, director of the Dolores River Boating Advocates in an email.

The NCA does not include a water right or increased flows from the dam, and seeks to best utilize available water year to year.

“Native fish and whitewater boating are important interlinked resources,” Clark stated. “The proposal includes a mechanism for stakeholder input regarding management of base flows and managed releases below McPhee Dam.”

A collaborative group on the issue has been in place for many years, and the proposed legislation would make it more formal.

The Dolores River Canyon deserves protection, Clark said.

It is “renowned for its scenic beauty, geologic formations, and cultural and historic resources. Important ecological resources include three native fish species – roundtail chub, flannelmouth sucker and bluehead sucker – and rare plant communities. People travel from all over the country to enjoy whitewater rafting on the Dolores. Protecting it as it is now will ensure that the broad diversity of Americans will continue to be able to access and appreciate the canyon,” Clark said.

The NCA safeguards the undeveloped character of the canyon, added Mark Pearson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.

“The Dolores River is beloved by many for its breathtaking beauty, the contrast of ancient ponderosa pines with stunning redrock cliffs, and the serenity of the undeveloped canyon,” he stated in an email. “Many folks have enjoyed and experienced the canyon by floating the river, but unfortunately the NCA legislation is unable to address the shortfall in flows downstream of the dam owing to the structure of existing water rights.”

jmimiaga@the-journal.com