‘As the River Flows’: A rafting-season chronicle

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Dolores river group seeks solutions

On March 14, the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) hosted its annual public meeting on McPhee Dam and Reservoir. As the meeting was not well advertised, only two members of the public attended.

The BOR reported that current forecasts showed that McPhee Reservoir was not likely to fill and there would probably not be any releases from the dam, except for an electrofishing survey scheduled by the Division of Wildlife.

However, BOR agreed to send out McPhee operation updates to the public by e-mail. Later, conditions changed and releases were made, but forecasts and flows proved to be so wildly varied that boaters were left struggling with a rapidly changing, unpredictable river. Here are some e-mails sent to and from the BOR during May 2007 that chronicle the saga.

Tuesday, May 1

BOR e-mail – “The forecast shows that the Reservoir will fill but not spill. Things could change depending on weather and user demand.”

Tuesday, May 8

The boaters begin to hope….

Boater e-mail – “After all this moisture and hot week ahead — what’s the plan?? Will there be water going down the river instead of the canals??

Wednesday, May 9

A spill is added to the McPhee operations forecast dated May 8 – however in order to figure that out, you needed to open the spreadsheet attached to the email which showed an operations schedule that would maximize the higher flows for rafting on the weekends and include 400 CFS for DOW’s electrofishing trip May 16-18.

Thursday, May 10

Two forecasts were released on Thursday before the highly anticipated weekend flows.

BOR e-mail – “I received an updated forecast this afternoon which indicates that inflows will not be as high as previously forecasted. This has changed the schedule by reducing releases on May 14 and May 15 from 400 CFS to 50 CFS and May 19 and 20 are reduced from 800 CFS to 50 CFS.”

Friday, May 11

The irrigators weigh in:

• “Does this ensure a full reservoir and releases for fish surveys which are very important to accomplish this year? I have been directed by the Board of Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company to advocate for both of the above items. . . .”

• “I have great concern we will not fill the reservoir using this current forecast information or have adequate flexibility to conduct the much needed fish surveys. . . . I do not see the logic in starting a spill this early with a flip of the coin possibility of filling this year.”

BOR’s response — “I reviewed runoff forecasts, actual inflow, and reservoir usage today which indicate a release of 800 CFS on May 12 and 13 is necessary. . . . 800 CFS should be at Bradfield Bridge by 8:00 am Saturday. We plan to continue the 800 CFS release until 3:00 pm Sunday afternoon at which time we will decrease flows by 50 CFS/hour until we reach a base flow of 50 CFS. I remind you that this operating plan may change. . . .”

BLM law enforcement pays a latenight visit to boaters at Bradfield Bridge campground preparing for weekend flows.

Saturday, May 12

6 a.m. – Flow at Bradfield Bridge is approximately 90 CFS. About 30 boating parties are at the launch site. 8 a.m. – Flow at Bradfield Bridge is about 800 CFS. Boaters launch.

BLM law enforcement pays campers at Dove Creek Pump Station/Sheep Mountain Point campground a latenight visit.

Sunday, May 13

3 p.m. – Release from McPhee Reservoir is reduced by 50 CFS and ramp-down continues until 50 CFS is reached.

Monday, May 14

Thankful boaters record their weekend experience…

“I would like to thank the Dolores Water Conservancy District and Bureau of Reclamation, especially Vern Harrell for planning and conducting a conservative dam release this weekend for rafting and boating on the Dolores River below McPhee Dam. Vern did a good job of planning this release with boatable flows arriving at Bradfield Bridge by 8:00 Saturday morning and cutting off by sundown on Sunday. . . Even with the short notice and uncertain flow levels, I counted over 100 rafts, kayaks, and canoes with happy passengers floating between Bradfield Bridge and Slick Rock this weekend.”

But the water just keeps coming….

BOR — “We have experienced higher than anticipated inflows and much lower than anticipated reservoir usage over the past week. . . . It is necessary that downstream releases increase today to 800 CFS.”

Tuesday, May 14

And the water keeps coming…

BOR – “. . . we are experiencing inflows in the range of 3000 CFS with reservoir demands near 500 CFS. Releases will be increased to as necessary to maintain reservoir elevation 6923. Releases could range from 1000 CFS to 2000 CFS beginning May 15. . . ”

Wednesday, May 15

The irrigators decide to exercise their water rights.

BOR – “We anticipate a reduction in downstream releases starting today. . . due to the inflow decreases and user demand. I was informed at 10:30 this morning that MVIC plans to take 795 CFS the next two days. . . .”

Thursday, May 16

BOR — “Flows from McPhee dam are decreasing because of a decrease in inflow and user demand. Releases to the Dolores River this weekend are anticipated to be 600 CFS.”

However, with the river running at over 1,000 CFS and forecasts anticipating boatable flows through the weekend, rafters start launching again.

Friday, May 17

A recreation manager e-mail regarding the wildly varying flows – “I just returned from all the river launch sites at 4:05 this afternoon. . . I opened the new operating plan from 1:45 this afternoon to read that Tuesday’s forecast of 1000 CFS through Monday will drop to 600 CFS tomorrow. I encountered five groups today launching from Bradfield, Slick Rock, and Gyp Valley. Generally the trip from Bradfield to Slick Rock and from Gyp Valley to Bedrock is 3 days or 2 nights even at minimum water levels. Minimum levels for small rafts up to 15 feet is 800 CFS. Sixteen- foot and 18-foot rafts would be much better off at 1000 CFS minimum. If you were one of the citizens launching this afternoon, do the math. Fortunately I believe I did not see any rafts over 15 foot. Even more fortunately I did not see any groups with children or older family members. Most of the folks I saw were young enough and strong enough to survive the adventure they are going to have. Even more of an adventure when the forecast drops to 400 CFS tomorrow or maybe tonight? Perhaps the forecast tomorrow morning will indicate 2000 CFS and I should not be concerned.”

Boater frustration with fluctuating forecasts and flows erupts:

Boater to BOR – “I personally have to call bullshit. And as a matter of fact, I am going to laugh my ass off when you guys have to start dumping water again come Monday when the inflow is such that you can’t avoid increasing the downstream release. There is absolutely no reason why the flows could not have been held at the 1000-1200 CFS level as forecasted to the PUBLIC on Wednesday. People have flocked here for the weekend to run the river, & I feel BOR’s decision is wrong, rude, totally inconsiderate, & detrimental to those of us whose livelihood is greatly impacted by these decisions.. . . Your methods for determining what is right & wrong are out-dated, lack objectivity, & I’ll see you at the table.

BOR – “I have updated the forecast daily as I agreed. I informed every one all along that flows would change as user demand increases and inflow decreases. I’m sorry for the folks that made the decision to embark on multiday trips, but I don’t have any more data than what I’ve shared and have no control over irrigators and their demands. . . . MVIC decided to pull 800 CFS with little to no notice to me. . . . McPhee Reservoir is operated for irrigation and by contract the irrigators have the right to the yield of the reservoir. . . .”

With escalating sentiments and declining inflows, BOR changes tactics and announces the Memorial Day operations forecast well in advance of the weekend.

Tuesday, May 22

BOR – “It appears that McPhee Reservoir could fill by tomorrow, May 23. Once the reservoir is full, the amount that will be released downstream . . . will be equal to inflows less reservoir demands. We could see downstream releases ranging between 200 CFS and 800 CFS through May 30. Please consider the variability of releases and use extreme caution should you decide to embark on a multi-day river trip. . . .”

With an inch of moisture arriving the week before Memorial Day and McPhee Reservoir full, the 2007 Lower Dolores River boating season may not be over. Stay tuned for more of “As the River Flows.”

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From -June 2007.