A draft bill that proposes to create the 45,455-acre Dolores River National Conservation Area and a 10,828-acre special management area would prohibit certain activities but also protect existing uses.
The proposed special land designations are in Dolores and San Miguel counties in Southwest Colorado. The bill was drafted by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in cooperation with the two counties. A 45-day comment period began Monday. The draft has not been introduced in the Senate.
Generally, the NCA stretches about 61 miles along the Lower Dolores River corridor on Bureau of Land Management land from Bradfield Bridge to Little Gypsum Bridge.
It also would include the side drainages of Summit and McIntyre canyons, which are southwest and northwest of Slick Rock.
New mining, new roads and commercial timber harvesting would be prohibited, as well as new large dams. Motorized vehicles would be restricted to existing routes.
Large-scale water development outside the NCA would not be allowed if it diminished the scenic, recreational, and fish and wildlife values of the NCA.
Valid existing mining leases would be allowed. Water rights, grazing rights and private property rights would not be affected, the bill says.
The purpose of the conservation area, according to the bill, is to “conserve, protect and enhance the native fish, whitewater boating, recreational, scenic, cultural, archaeological, natural, geological, historical, ecological, watershed, wildlife, educational and scientific resources.”
If passed, a management plan must be drawn up within three years for the long-term protection, management and monitoring of the NCA.
Water rights: The NCA designation and special management area do not include a water right.
According to the draft bill, water rights would be protected and operations of McPhee Reservoir would not be affected by the NCA. McPhee Reservoir would continue to operate under the Bureau of Reclamation and Dolores Water Conservancy District.
The NCA would allow the construction of small diversion dams or stock ponds. It would also allow for new minor water developments or modification of existing structures.
The NCA would not affect any existing water resource facility, including irrigation and pumping facilities, reservoirs, water conservation works, canals, ditches, pipelines, wells, hydropower projects, power lines, water diversion, storage and carriage structures. It also would not impede access to facilities for operation, maintenance, repair or replacement.
“Nothing in this act affects any water right that is decreed under the laws of (Colorado) in existence on the date of enactment of this act,” the bill says.
McPhee Dam releases: Managed releases from McPhee Dam for whitewater boating and native fish populations would not be affected by the NCA, the bill says.
For 10 years, boaters, fishery managers and water managers have improved cooperation about how best to manage limited releases for various recreation and ecological benefits. The bill calls for that to continue.
It also would require the Bureau of Reclamation to prepare and make publicly available a report that describes any progress with respect to the conservation, protection and enhancement of native fish in the Dolores River.
The NCA would not “alter or diminish” operations of the Dolores Project, which includes McPhee Dam, according to the draft bill. It would not affect treaty rights of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
Wild and Scenic River: If the bill is passed, the BLM would drop a section of the Dolores River’s eligibility for federal designation as a National Wild and Scenic River.
Such a designation can include a federally reserved water right. Water and county officials have advocated to eliminate Wild and Scenic River eligibility because of concerns that upstream McPhee Reservoir could be eyed as a potential source for the water right.
Mining: The NCA preserves valid existing leases for mining within the boundaries, and leases may be extended. No new mining patents or leases would be allowed.
Grazing: Grazing and trailing permits would continue under current BLM and Forest Service rules.
Private land: The NCA protects reasonable and feasible access to any private property within or adjacent to the NCA. It would not affect county zoning designations.
Roads: The NCA would not affect county roads, their use or maintenance. The popular Dolores River Road, which travels along the river from the Dove Creek Pump Station, would not be affected. The bill says the road would not be improved beyond its existing primitive condition. No new or temporary roads would be constructed, and motorized vehicles must stay on designated routes, with exceptions for administrative or emergency purposes.
Wildfires: The NCA allows for control of wildfire, insects and disease.
Utilities: Rights of way, operations and maintenance would not be affected by the NCA. New utility permits and rights of way would be allowed.
Ponderosa Gorge: The proposed NCA includes the popular Ponderosa Gorge, an 18-mile stretch of the river canyon popular with boaters.
The gorge would be managed in a manner that maintains its wilderness character. No new roads would be allowed, and motorized vehicles or equipment would be prohibited, with exceptions for public safety.
Commercial timber harvests in Ponderosa Gorge would be prohibited, with exceptions for ecological restoration.
Advisory council: An 11-person Dolores River National Conservation Area Advisory Council would be created as part of the bill. The council would advise the secretary of Interior about the preparation, implementation and monitoring of the management plan.
Two members would represent agricultural water user interests, and two would represent conservation interests. Two others would represent recreation interests, including one specifically for whitewater boating.
Dolores County, San Miguel County and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe each would have one representative. One member would be a grazing permit holder within the NCA, and another would be a private landowner who owns land in immediate proximity to the NCA.
Council members must be residents of Dolores, San Miguel, Montezuma, Montrose or La Plata counties. Terms would be for five years. Advisory meetings would be open to the public and be noticed.
This 10,828-acre proposed special management area is on the San Juan National Forest and made up of the small side canyons that drain into the Dolores River Canyon on the west edge of the Glade, stretching from Bradfield Bridge north to about the Dolores/San Miguel County line.
This proposed special management area would protect valid existing rights, and not affect water rights or McPhee Reservoir.
It would include its own management plan.