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Road, bridges threaten Dolores River Canyon

Conservationists pursue protective designations like wilderness or wild and scenic rivers to help ensure the undeveloped character of cherished places is guaranteed into the future.

It’s a bulwark against the creeping industrialization that often threatens to consume the quiet valleys and wild canyons that offer refuge for wildlife and rejuvenation for people.

Now comes along the latest in creeping industrialization – the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has unveiled plans to construct new roads, power lines and bridges into the remote reaches of the Dolores River Canyon near Bedrock.

The Dolores River carves a canyon between Big Gypsum Valley and Bedrock beyond sublime. It’s a national park-caliber landscape that has begged for permanent protections since the 1970s, when Congress first authorized a study under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

The Bureau of Land Management coincidentally proclaimed it a Wilderness Study Area in 1980. Ever since, river lovers have articulated its wild values and championed the need to keep the canyon off limits to development.

But alas, lacking any kind of permanent designated protection – whether as a wilderness area, or wild and scenic river, or a more recently suggested National Conservation Area, the Dolores remains at risk of succumbing to new industrial scars and insults.

Why this latest proposal? The Bureau of Reclamation currently operates a brine injection well on the Dolores River just across from the Bedrock boat ramp and campground. That injection well takes shallow, briny groundwater pumped from the Paradox Valley and shoots it 15,000 feet deep into the Earth to keep it from seeping into the Dolores River, and hence to reduce salinity in the Colorado River far downstream at the Mexican border.

The current injection well has reached capacity in the underground geologic formation, so the Bureau of Reclamation needs a new site for brine injection. It has zeroed in on a location farther upstream into the Dolores River Canyon, at the confluence with Wild Steer Canyon.

The proposal includes constructing 1.3 miles of new road upstream from the current injection well, crossing back and forth over the Dolores River with two new bridges, accompanied by a new power line and buried pipeline.

Needless to say, the impacts to the wild character of the Dolores River would be devastating. The Dolores River is one of the last, best unspoiled places on the Colorado Plateau. The Bureau of Reclamation’s plan would convert that last few miles of the magical float through the slickrock canyon into an industrial zone of noise, lights and traffic.

There are surely better options than sacrificing the extraordinary, and irreplaceable, beauty and serenity of the Dolores River Canyon, options like alternate sites for injection wells or higher tech solutions like zero-liquid discharge technology.

Contemplate floating those last few river miles from La Sal Creek and the dinosaur tracks down to the big curve at Wild Steer Canyon. Now imagine the power lines, storage tanks, chain-link fences, compressor noise, lights and parking lots scraped across the flats at Wild Steer Canyon, turning the float into an industrialized landscape.

Without an outcry of public concern, the Bureau of Reclamation may well head down the path of business as usual, sacrificing more of a wild canyon to the sights, sounds and impacts of a continuous year-round industrial operation.

The public has a chance to weigh in over the next couple of weeks. The proposal and how to comment are available online at https://on.doi.gov/3al1HSa.

Whether you’re a boater, hiker, equestrian, petroglyph viewer, paleontologist or just plain ole lover of the last remnant wild niches of the Colorado Plateau, now’s the time to raise your voice.

Mark Pearson is executive director at San Juan Citizens Alliance. Reach him at mark@sanjuancitizens.org.