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Senate hearing requested for bill that protects Dolores River

Boaters flocked to the lower Dolores River during high water years. Here a raft enters Snaggletooth Rapid. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)
Sens. Bennet and Hickenlooper seek hearing with Committee on Energy and Natural Resources

U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper have requested a legislative hearing with the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to consider a conservation bill that protects the Lower Dolores River Canyon.

The two Colorado Democrats introduced the Dolores River National Conservation Area and Special Management Area Act in the Senate on July 14.

The letter for the legislative hearing was delivered Sept. 19 to Committee Chairman and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., the ranking committee member.

“The Act was crafted with over a decade of work by Coloradans in the Dolores River region through the Lower Dolores Working Group,” the letter from Bennet and Hickenlooper states. “This collaborative Working Group includes representatives from agricultural water users, county commissioners, ranchers, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, boating advocates, motorized recreationists, conservation interests and private landowners.”

If passed by a majority vote in committee, the bill would move to a full vote in the Senate. The committee hearing includes public testimony.

“As Congress takes up its agenda for the fall, I’ll be pushing for the bill to receive a hearing as soon as possible,” Bennet told The Journal.

The legislation adds protection to the scenic river canyon by preventing additional mining, oil and gas, large dams and development. It honors existing uses and leases, water rights, ranching and recreation.

As a compromise, the bill removes “a segment of the Dolores River from consideration as a Wild and Scenic River, while continuing to recognize the River's special value,” the letter states.

The Act designates 53,187 acres as a National Conservation Area on BLM lands from Bradfield Bridge to Big Gypsum Valley, and 15,664 acres as a Special Management Area on adjacent U.S. Forest Service land from McPhee Dam to Bradfield Bridge.

In all, the added protections incorporate a 75-mile stretch of the river canyon in Montezuma, Dolores and San Miguel counties. A map and more information is available on Bennet’s website.

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The area includes the famed Class 4 Snaggletooth Rapid and the Ponderosa Gorge, which features old-growth forests along a popular 18-mile wilderness rafting trip where bears, desert bighorn sheep and river otters commonly are seen.

“Each of these designations includes provisions to protect natural, scenic, and historical values, including native fish, while also honoring water rights and protecting agricultural and municipal water supplies as well as recreational river uses,” the letter states.

The bipartisan bill was introduced in the House by Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, of Colorado Congressional District 3. The House companion bill is identical as the Senate version and is co-sponsored by U.S. Reps. Ken Buck and Doug Lamborn, both Colorado Republicans. The companion bill was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources.

In its request for a hearing in the Senate, Bennet and Hickenlooper stated the bill had strong bipartisan support from the three counties, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the working group.

“We encourage the Committee to consider this carefully vetted and broadly supported legislation to protect Colorado’s natural heritage,” they stated.

The bill is supported by county commissioners of all three counties it affects. The Dolores Water Conservation District, which manages McPhee Reservoir, stated it does not support the bill citing water issues.

The district is concerned that the bill retains a Section 7 regulatory component of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The section restricts large water development projects upstream of the NCA boundaries that “unreasonably diminish” values of the Dolores River.