For rafters, happy days are here again
Crowds expected for first good season in years
By Jim Mimiaga
For the first time in four years, whitewater rapids will likely return to the lower Dolores River canyon this spring, bringing boaters a much-needed thrill and revitalizing a drought-stricken river with a cleansing surge of water.
A record-breaking winter snowpack in the Dolores Basin this year has reached 130 percent of normal, and more precipitation is in the forecast. With the drought apparently ending, officials report that spring runoff will easily fill McPhee Reservoir, and the overflow will be released by the Bureau of Reclamation to benefit whitewater enthusiasts.
“It’s time to get on the river,” said Carolyn Dunmire, organizer of the Dolores River Action Group, which lobbies for boater needs. “I think there is a lot of pent-up demand, so expect some crowds.”
The recreation water expected to be timed-released from the dam is around 102,000 acre-feet, which technically translates to a 37-day rafting season at flows of 800 cubic feet per second, explained BOR operations manager Vern Harrell. The plan is to begin increasing downstream flows for boaters in May with (depending on actual run-off conditions) the possibility of lasting at that rate into early June.
The BOR considers 800 cfs flows as the minimum for a good rafting experience. Kayaks and canoes could negotiate the river to as low as 400-500 cfs. Already, lower-elevation runoff has pushed the Dolores past the San Miguel River to 500 cfs.
The scenic lower Dolores offers multi-day trips that flow through twisting red-rock canyons revered for their remoteness and natural beauty. No permits are necessary.
Single-day runs are also popular, especially on Snaggletooth Rapid, a vicious Class IV/V rapid that will soon roar back to life, a coveted thrill sorely missed by expert kayakers and rafters. Harrell said the exact dam release dates will be known April 15. He said the forecast looks promising and that the reservoir is already filling at a rate of 1,000 acre-feet per day. Regular updates will be posted at doloreswater. com beginning April 1.
“We don’t really know for certain how long the season will last right now because we rely on a forecast,” he said. “ A lot of it depends on how fast it comes down and spring precipitation.”
Also, in order to simulate a natural spring flush, the BOR will release 2,000 cfs for seven days around Memorial Day weekend, Harrell said. The extra surge of water will be a boon for rafters and is designed to clean out the lower Dolores, currently
clogged with mud, algae and sediment accumulated over the last four years.
Tips for enjoying the river
Rick Ryan, the affable but strict BLM river ranger for the lower Dolores River canyon, is bracing for the crowds of boaters the whitewater will surely bring. The most popular put-in date is Memorial Day weekend, a time he is encouraging people to avoid.
“I’ve had calls on a daily basis about the Dolores River from people in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Idaho, so if it runs they are coming,” he said. “The Dolores does not require a permit so it becomes a popular destination for boaters who don’t get permits elsewhere, plus it has not run in some time so locals will be taking advantage too.”
The impact on the river from recreation use will be significant, and Ryan and others will be on patrol to see that things run smoothly and that the river environment is respected. He offers these tips to ensure a great trip.
“Be safe and patient and have a good time,” Ryan said. “It’s a beautiful river and we are fortunate to be there.”
This flush is critical for overall river health and fish survival, explained Mike Japhet, fish biologist for the Division of Wildlife in Durango.
Mimicking a spring run-off clears out accumulated sediment and scours the river bottom to open up gravel beds that fish depend on for spawning. And more water is a critical signal for a struggling native-fish population to begin reproducing.
“A lot of the environmental cues fish use are tied to water flow,” Japhet said. “ We hope that the spill will be managed to match a natural spring flood so that these fish will take the cue and increase their numbers.”
Depleted flows in combination with a five-year drought have especially harmed warm-water fish whose habitat is roughly from where the Dolores enters the Colorado River upstream to the San Miguel confluence. In particular the round-tail chub has suffered declining populations due to low water and the introduction of non-native species such as sunfish and bullhead fish, Japhet said. These fish compete for food, and can reproduce better in poor conditions than native fish.
Surveys done two years ago in this part of the river showed a healthy gravel bed for native fish to spawn, for example, but recent conditions show these same areas to be covered in knee-deep muck, Japhet said.
“The round-tail chub is not on the brink of being eliminated, but we are keeping an eye on it because it is a state species of special concern and has been in decline,” he said. “We do not want to see that fish become the next threatened or endangered species, so we are hoping that with modest changes in water management from the Dolores Project, conditions can be improved for this fish.”
Also, the conditions that cottonwoods need are perfectly timed with the natural peak in spring runoff. It will help cottonwood seedlings to flourish by delivering them downstream where they are deposited in moist soil above the low water line. These trees stabilize the banks, fight off invasive tamarisk and provide shade for trout.
The conditions of the river bed, known as geomorphology, also will be improved with the extra water. Deep pools that trout favor are currently filled with sediment and will be flushed out, and algae that has accumulated on rocks and in the soil due to warm water temperatures will be blown out, increasing oxygen levels for fish and the insects they eat.
“You can’t underestimate the benefit of a spring flush; it is the natural conditions that all of the plants and animals in a riparian community depend on,” Japhet said.
The lower Dolores has suffered shortages alongside alfalfa-growers due to a half-empty reservoir the last four years. Farmers are expected to get their full share of irrigation this year, and recreation-users will get theirs as well, but there are some competing interests the BOR is negotiating on downstream of the dam.
For instance, whitewater boaters prefer the most water for as long as possible during warmer spring weather beginning in May. But biologists would like to see the ramping up of releases more gradually beginning in April to better simulate what a natural spring runoff is like.
“We are bringing all of these people together and there will be some give and take on everyone’s part,” Harrell said, adding that rafting needs are a priority because Dolores Project documents specify that spills be managed for rafting.
Still, the warm-water fishery needs attention as well, Harrell said, a new focus he credited to recent efforts by the Dolores River Coalition, a group made up of state and national conservation and environmental groups. The group has been meeting with the Dolores Water Conservation District board, which manages McPhee reservoir, for more than a year.
Japhet and the DOW are proposing that flows on the lower Dolores, which are now at 37 cfs below the dam, be ramped up to 50 cfs on May 1, 150 cfs one week later, and then to 400 cfs before the planned 2,000 cfs release beginning in May.
“It’s more natural to gradually release the water,” he said. “Otherwise, if we have a real warm spring, the warmwater fish will take the cue to spawn, then we dump cold water on them all at once and it turns them off.”
Japhet said that releasing slowly in April calculates to only 10 percent of the total amount estimated to spill, so the impact would be minimal for boaters. “The good news is that there is a lot of overlap between what the boaters like and what the native fish need,” so a compromise is likely.
“Part of the allure is not just a big ride, but also the natural beauty and the fact that you’re in a natural environment with healthy riparian habitat and fish populations,” he added.
Harrell agreed, saying communication between competing interests has improved. “Hopefully we will start managing downstream releases for the whole ecosystem instead of just for one or two aspects,” he said.
“One of the things I’ve seen in the past is an adversarial relationship between my job and the rafters, but lately it has not been like that. We seem to be more on the same page.”
A spill committee has been re-formed to represent fishery and boating interests. Tom Rice and Rick Ryan represent the boaters, Japhet and Kurt Lashmet speak for the fish and Jim Siscoe will conduct the core science studies sponsored by the Dolores River Coalition.