River of Sorrows: Drought strangles the Dolores

It’s been described as more of an elaborate plumbing system than a real-life natural river, its water caged, sucked and pumped away for the sake of farming and domestic use.

But a revived movement is growing to promote environmental balance for the Dolores River below McPhee Dam, which suffers from low flows despite a sprawling reservoir backed up behind it.

Past the network of dams, pumps and canals, the region’s main river becomes a trickle as it enters the otherwise strikingly beautiful red-rock canyon country and winds 150 miles through remote wilderness, eventually merging with the Colorado River near Moab, Utah.

The dam release is typically 15-20 cubic feet per second, year-round, except when there is a spill — and that has not happened since 2000.

The consistent low flows are starving fish, wildlife, flora and fauna, while leaving boaters with nothing but memories of whitewater thrills from many years past. Because of the drought, and reservoir management favoring farming over the recreation economy, the natural world of the lower Dolores has clearly been compromised, wildlife managers report.

According to Division of Wildlife aquatic biologist Mike Japhet, the lack of water has led to a combination of escalating problems for the natural ecosystem.

“There is no substitute for water in this situation. What we have now with the base flows is an artificial environment that is insufficient for a healthy system,” Japhet said.

In the last 15 years, there have been two major fish kills because of the drought and low releases from the dam, which makes it too warm for cold-water trout to survive, he said. From the late 1980s until the mid1990s, the fish count in the lower Dolores was estimated at 500 per mile. Today, that population has dropped to 111 fish per mile, a 15-year low.

“For fishing, it is no longer a destination river,” Japhet said.

In a January 2004 report on the fishery, the DOW states, “Fisherman use on the lower Dolores in 2003 was almost nil, compared to about 5,000 visitor days in its heyday, including many non-residents.”

In Colorado, the value of one angler day is estimated at $104 towards the economy, according to the report, which for the Dolores figures to roughly half a million dollars per year in lost revenues.

But you don’t have to be a fish to appreciate water. Without its natural spring flows, vegetation relied on by animals and birds does not flourish. Stagnant water has caused algae blooms that choke off oxygen needed for plants which provide cover for insects that feed fish.

“The single most important requirement for aquatic life is the annual spring flush, which we have not had in many years,” Japhet said. “It cleans out debris and sediment and is critical timing for distributing cottonwood seedlings downstream.”

It is those trees that provide a canopy of shade on the river, cooling the habitat for trout and securing their future. Mimicking spring runoff annually is essential for the river’s future and is the goal of the DOW in negotiations with reservoir operators.

Enter the Dolores River Dialogue, a jump-start effort by environmental groups, federal land managers and government reservoir operators to find a solution. Spearheading the effort is the Dolores River Coalition, a Durango-based group with representatives from Colorado Wild, the San Juan Citizens Alliance, the Nature Conservancy, Sheep Mountain Alliance, Dolores River Action Group and others. Monthly meetings, moderated by Fort Lewis College, will continue until at least the fall.

It won’t be easy, nor was it the last time around, when a group of private and government users attempted to solve the problem, but failed after 12 contentious years of dead-end meetings characterized by a stubborn resistance from water managers to free up additional water for fish.

Despite some optimism that rival groups are again talking, indications for a compromise were mostly grim during the latest meeting in March.

The Dolores Water Conservancy District controls McPhee Reservoir, which they claim is completely allocated, or otherwise sold. One idea for increasing downstream flows is through a little-used concept known as interruptible supply, whereby a user, say a farmer, willingly leases water not being diverted to fields towards downstream use (the fishery) for a limited time.

After a predetermined period, the water reverts to agriculture. The idea is if the farmer does not want to farm one year, he can temporarily sell his water to a buyer wanting it for environmental purposes.

“That path is really unhealthy for the community and I’d fight that with every bone in my body for the rest of my life,” responded Don Schwindt, president of the DWCD board. “I hope you have a worthy adversary in me.”

Schwindt doubted there would be any willing sellers, and expressed concern it would erode agriculture if there were. But Chuck Wanner, coalition president, disagreed.

“People own water that they may or may not want to use. I think you have to ask and keep the option on the table.”

Schwindt was more willing to listen to another unique idea that would tap into McPhee’s so-called “dead storage,” 150,000 acre-feet that is never used in the 800,000 acre-foot capacity reservoir. Wanner explained a system could be arranged that allowed the dead storage to be pumped for downstream use during dry years. If the amount were not replaced during the next year’s spring runoff, then an insurance policy would financially compensate for the lost water until it was replaced.

“Why, for example, would you build up a million-dollar reserve and then never touch it?” Wanner said. “This would give us a mechanism to make up the difference in dry years.”

If the fund was adequate, the idea has merit, Schwindt said, but he feared it would fail if the estimated four-year drought stretched to seven years or longer, “because we have to guarantee there is no injury to the McPhee user.”

Not surprisingly, the DWCD’s solution to the problem is to build another dam that would capture water earmarked for environmental release downstream. Its target is Plateau Creek, a tributary of McPhee Reservoir on its northeastern side. Estimates show it would back up 24,000 acre-feet into Lone Mesa State Park and be drained, via transfer, to augment fish flows below McPhee. The plan does not sit well with environmentalists and needs further review, likely including an Environmental Impact Study.

But the additional reservoir would further reduce whitewater rafting, noted Rick Ryan, Dolores River ranger for the BLM. If built, Plateau Creek would store water that would otherwise be spilled from McPhee, reducing, or eliminating, rafting days during more normal precipitation years, he said.

Like farming and fishing, rafting is also an economic benefit to the community, Ryan said, noting that “just today I had 14 calls from people wondering if our almost-normal winter was enough to have a spill.”

According to the Colorado River Outfitters Association, commercial rafting on the lower Dolores is at historical lows, but jumped from 439 user days in 1999 to 921 user days in 2000, the last year there was a spill. In 1995, a very wet year, user days were at 3,200. It is estimated that an average commercial boating day contributes $250 to the economy, as boaters buy gear, gas, hotel rooms and food.

There will not be a whitewater season this year either, despite a near-normal winter. Intense drought the previous three winters drained McPhee so severely that there is not enough runoff to fill it, never mind enough for a whitewater spill downstream.

To their credit, McPhee managers have responded to recreational rafting needs, developing a website announcing the status of any possible rafting season, and releasing any estimated overfill judiciously to maximize rafting days. But more could be done to make it fair, some say.

“The river is out of balance,” remarked Carolyn Dunmire, a private boater and member of the Dolores River Action Group. “It provides for farming and that is good, but there is also a shift towards the recreational values of fishing and boating in this community. Reservoir management will eventually need to reflect those changes in the long run and this dialogue is the first step.”

From April 2004.