April 2008

Let the good times flow: Big water on the Dolores

By Jim Mimiaga

SNAGGLETOOTH, A RAPID ON THE DOLORES RIVER, CAN SNARE THE UNWARY RAFTER.The record snowfall this winter is melting away into an extended boating season on the Lower Dolores River that is rarely seen.

Typically a trickle following average to below-average snowpack, the Dolores River below McPhee Dam falls victim to irrigation demand for alfalfa crops.

But thanks to a banner winter year that dropped snow at a rate 50 percent above normal, boaters are expected to enjoy 75 days of whitewater this spring and summer, reports the Bureau of Reclamation.

“Our first priority is to fill the reservoir, the second is to provide a downstream release for boaters,” said Vern Harrell, bureau administrator for McPhee.

And this year both will easily be obtained, he said.

Beginning April 1, the bureau will ramp up releases feeding a labyrinth of red-rock river canyons stretching 185 miles to the Colorado River. Officials estimate the run will last until late June.

“Do you have a specific time of day for the release?” asked boater Sam Carter at a recent spill meeting, reflecting the locals’ eagerness to float the stretch.

At the Bradfield Bridge put-in, rafts, kayaks and canoes line the shore, their captains waiting for the coveted release to reach them from the dam 12 miles upstream.

When it does, life returns to normal for river connoisseurs from down the street or across the country.

“We’ve been bombarded with calls and questions from people all over,” said Toni Kelly, information specialist with the Dolores Public Lands Office.

A Lower Dolores run has become increasingly rare, especially during drought years seen in the recent past. Before rafting seasons in 2005 and 2007, the Lower Dolores was shut for four years.

The spill also means a more normal hydrograph for the Dolores River itself. The dam release mimics a natural spring runoff that benefits fish and riparian habitat downstream. It scours beaches, disperses cottonwood seeds and provides the biological trigger for spawning of endangered warm-water fish in the lower stretches.

“Even more important than floating on the river is that for these days, the river re-establishes its natural channel and becomes a viable river again,” said Glen Dunmire, a local naturalist and boater.

Below is the 2008 forecasted spill for the Dolores River below McPhee Reservoir. (Information is provided by the Dolores Water Conservancy District, available at doloreswater.com.)

April 1-30: Rafting flows of 800 cfs to 1,500 cfs are anticipated for the month of April. However, April 14-17 flows will be reduced to 500 cfs to allow for fish surveys.

May 1-31: It is anticipated the flows will be ramped up to 1,500 cfs in the first half of May and increased to a peak of 3,000 cfs in the third week. By the last week in May, flows are expected to drop to 2,000 cfs. These peak flows could come earlier and be larger depending on weather. Spill levels could also fluctuate to avoid over-filling the reservoir.

June 1-30: Expected to be 800 to 1,500 cfs. As the time approaches when irrigation and municipal demand are equal to or exceed inflow to the reservoir, the spill will be brought to a close. The goal is to ramp down flows at an average rate of 100 cfs per day, but the tail end of the spill is difficult to manage and may require more abrupt drop in flows, so please plan accordingly. The spill is expected to be shut on June 30.

However, this data is provisional and subject to change due to Dolores River inflow, future precipitation, weather patterns, fill and spill criteria, and user demand.

The upper Dolores River is also expected to run high this year, but officials do not expect heavy flooding in the town of Dolores.

The bureau is forecasting a 5,000- 6,000 cfs peak flow through town somewhere around May 19. For the river to jump its banks in town, the flows would need to be 7,000 cfs or above.

But low-lying areas upriver from the town, such as the Twin Spruce subdivision, will likely see some flooding, officials said, as will newer homes that have been built too close to the river.

“From the West Fork down to the Stapleton Bridge could be rough,” said Montezuma County Sheriff Gerald Wallace. “We will be checking the river closely for tell-tell signs of flooding.”

CANOEISTS MANEUVER ALONG THE LOWER DOLORES RIVERWhile major flooding is not a concern now, heavy spring rains could change the forecast quickly. In 2007, for example, there was no scheduled release until heavy rains in April forced a spill.

Boaters flocked to put-ins, and quickly discovered they were under surveillance by federal rangers who wrote up several tickets for marijuana possession. (Free Press, June 2007)

Last year’s sudden release schedule was difficult to manage on such short notice. A sudden call on a large amount of water by irrigators also contributed to the confusion, as the spill forecast had to be promptly reduced.

Boaters complained of a lack of communication from water officials, and reported that as a result some rafters were stranded at low water mid-trip.

To remedy the situation, information has been better streamlined on the doloreswater.com web site and will be regularly updated, said Mike Preston, general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District.

Also new this year, questions about rafting on the Dolores River will be directed to the San Juan Public Lands Center at 882-7296 or 882-7297.

For private boaters, the Dolores River does not require a permit; just arrive and launch. Camping sites are numerous and dispersed. Smaller groups should leave larger sites for larger parties.

Practice a spirit of cooperation, be prepared for rescue (either yourself or others), and scout for rapids and other hazards accordingly. A wet-suit on the upper sections is recommended because the water is frigid. Be prepared for any kind of weather.