College students find water quality high in the Dolores

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How clean is the water in the Dolores River north of the town of Dolores? Very clean, according to six Fort Lewis College students who studied the river as part of a junior-level course.

During their fall-semester 2014 class, “ENVS 395: Environmental Colloquium,” the students chose the river and the rivervalley plan for their research project. The class was taught by Janneli Miller, a former resident of Dolores. (Full disclosure: Miller is a Free Press freelance contributor.)

The students wanted to study whether the Dolores River Valley Plan – special land-use measures designed to protect the valley’s water quality – was the best plan to serve and protect the interests of Montezuma County residents, and whether the river can withstand further development.

They presented their findings Dec. 10 at the college.

To gauge the river’s water quality, they tested for e. coli, a type of bacteria that can indicate fecal contamination, explained Madison Rafferty, one of the students, during the presentation. They did testing at 10 sites on both public and private land, from the Lightenburger Ranch north of Dolores to the bridge in the town and at one site below the bridge. The testing actually entailed three samples for each site (one above, one below, and one at the site) for a total of 30 samples. These were taken to a lab at the college and analyzed.

The sampling found anywhere from 1 to 7 colony-forming units (CFUs) of e. coli per 100 milliliters of water in the various samples. EPA standards say that anything up to 126 cfu/100 mL is acceptable.

Two possible conclusions could be drawn from that, the students said in their research paper: “that the river is being sufficiently protected [by the river-valley plan] and that has helped the water stay free of fecal contamination or also that the river is healthy enough to withstand further development.”

Kale Casasanto-Zimmerman, another of the students, said in contrast, sampling done by others on the Animas River has found “some alarming levels of e. coli.”

“I think the Animas River is seeing the negative effects of being so built-up,” he said at the Dec. 10 presentation.

The students also surveyed 135 Montezuma County residents, most via an online survey but 12 in person, to find out their attitudes about the Dolores River Valley Plan. The county commissioners voted in July to abandon the key provision in the plan, which was a program of transferable development rights that limited density to roughly one residence per 10 acres in the valley but allowed landowners to sell and trade development rights to achieve higher densities in certain places.

The survey was not scientifically representative of the county population, but gave some indication of the views of people interested in the river valley, most of them from Dolores or the valley itself.

It found that most of those answering the question (82 vs. 19) did know that the county commissioners had eliminated the TDR program.

In answer to another question, 65 of 131 respondents were against further development in the valley, 48 favored limited development, 8 felt “conflicted,” 5 favored more development, and 5 had no opinion.

“In summary, a majority of residents are either totally against development or in favor of limited and regulated development,” the students wrote in their paper. “Many people who are informed on the issue wish to see it handled proactively and want a stronger policy to be put in place.”

The survey found that among those who wanted to see some future development, “There was a wide range of opinions; however one main thing that stuck out was. . . the idea of ‘smart’ development. Smart development means that there is little to no harmful impact on the environment and if any development is done it is done in a sustainable way.”

The other students in the project were Dakota Deters, Derek Ems, Jack Galaktionoff and Elizabeth Thomas.

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From January 2015.