Boaters on the Dolores River below McPhee Dam are being asked to concede some of their whitewater flows towards improving habitat for a declining native-fish population.
And they seem to be in a sharing mood. Since the Dolores River was dammed in the 1980s, user groups and environmentalists have struggled, sometimes bitterly, over fair allocation of water for agriculture, whitewater boating, and native and sport fisheries downstream.
But it is the powerful U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its hallmark enforcement tool, the Endangered Species Act, that could tip the scales in favor of native fish.
When native species are threatened with extinction, the Fish and Wildlife Service can step in and mandate conditions needed for improvement. So far the service has not listed the roundtail chub, flannelmouth sucker or bluehead sucker – three native species found on the Dolores River – as threatened or endangered, although the roundtail chub was found to be “warranted but precluded,” meaning it merits listing but the agency doesn’t have money to manage it.
However, their sharp decline could some day prompt a listing and bring in federal regulators, a threat that is driving local users to come up with a solution.
A proposal to augment the low flows suffered by native fish with water managed for whitewater boating was discussed at an informational meeting held by the Lower Dolores Boating Advocates Jan. 31 at the Dolores Community Center.
“If we lose the native fish, there is a chance we lose local control of the river, and that has economic and cultural ramifications,” warned Peter Mueller of the Nature Conservancy. “The big picture is that native fish have taken a huge hit in the last 25 years since McPhee Dam closed.”
A dose of cold water
Here is the problem, according to fish biologists: Native fish are genetically cued to spawn in warm-water temperatures that coincide with summer conditions following frigid spring snowmelt. But low flows below McPhee Dam cause the Lower Dolores River to heat up in April and early May, prompting the fish to spawn prematurely.
Then, in years where there is surplus water, managers release flows for whitewater boating to overlap with Memorial Day weekend. The chilling flush, while good for boating, wipes out vulnerable young fry of the native fish, contributing to the persistent population decline.
Keeping the water cold in spring is essential for delaying the native-fish spawn until after the boating season. This should help native fish rebound, according to biologists, because it mimics a natural hydrograph.
“So we are trying to switch the time-frame of the boating release by starting the rampup earlier so cold water is delivered to the native-fish environment,” said Nathan Fey of American Whitewater. “In dry years when there is a limited spill, we would be conceding about one boating day, equal to about 2,000 acre-feet.
“We need to know if the boating community supports this proposal.”
In exchange, American Whitewater is negotiating with McPhee reservoir managers to try to give boaters more advance notice of a whitewater season, and to manage the release so there are more days at peak flows.
Boaters at the meeting seemed largely amenable to giving up a little water to help the fish.
“I’m in favor of sacrificing some boating water, because it keeps us in the game and we don’t lose control of our local river,” said boater Tim Hunter of Mancos.
Canoeist Kevin Cook also seemed agreeable: “Boating is just one aspect of who I am. I also want to see wise management of the natural environment.”
The recreationists also discussed some of their concerns about the way rafting is currently managed on the river.
Typically there is a two- or three-week boating season timed to coincide with Memorial Day weekend, but hot weather and heavy irrigation demand can shut down the release suddenly. The Lower Dolores offers single-day and multi-day trips.
“One problem boaters face is being stranded on the river when the spill is unexpectedly cut off,” said rafter Shanti Savage. “There needs to be more predictability so we don’t have to get off the river and call in to make sure we can make it down the rest of the way.”
Fey said the proposed hydrographs for the spill offer plateaus at 500 acre-feet on the receding end of the spill that would allow boaters to get to their take-out in case the season is suddenly shortened.
McPhee operates on a “fill and spill” strategy, generally meaning the reservoir is filled first, then excess flows are released for boating.
Snowpack levels, rate of snowmelt, wind, warm temperatures and irrigation demand make it difficult to accurately predict if the reservoir will fill most years.
In wetter years surpluses can be more easily anticipated, and boaters know weeks in advance of an upcoming whitewater season. But in drier years McPhee managers are more cautious, and wait longer for assurances that the reservoir will fill before announcing boating releases, sometimes with just days notice.
The permit problem
During marginal-snowpack years, those announcements can be on-again, off-again affairs, considering all the variables. This is frustrating for commercial boaters trying to book trips, but the lack of predictability works out well for locals who typically drop everything and rush to the put-in when a release is announced.
“Right now it is unpredictable and that keeps people away,” said boater Josh Munson. “If you make it more predictable, more people will come. I am not against that, but we need to have good management of the human factor so it is fair and reasonable.”
Boating the Dolores River does not require a permit, and campsites are not reserved. Overcrowding and competition for prime campsites, especially at Coyote Wash, has led to arguing and even fistfights, observers reported. But more boater regulations, such as a lottery-style permit system, are a sensitive topic.
“The permit issue is the elephant in the room,” Fey said. “For it to become permitted is a huge process, and it is not in the BLM’s 20-year management plan, so permitting is not going to happen any time soon.” “No one wants a permit system, but with more predictability I see a lot more use,” said Tom Klema of Peregrine River Tours. “I’d rather get a permit and know I have a campsite waiting for me and not a confrontation.”
Despite the increasing popularity of the Dolores River, the BLM opted not to replace river ranger Rick Ryan after his retirement two years ago. So for now, it is up to the boating community to protect the health of their river playground.
“We are on our own, and we do not have Colorado water law on our side, so our power is the boating community,” said Jay Loschert of American Whitewater. “We need to educate ourselves and use the resource responsibly.”