Water-rights worries have compelled grassroots groups to craft an alternative solution to a Wild and Scenic designation for the Dolores River. The bill is advancing in Congress, but the river is still in trouble.
At points during 15 years of negotiations, a group of near strangers stood on the canyon rim looking over the river they were fighting over and fighting for.
The Dolores River tumbles out of deep pine forest in the San Juan Mountains, running between streaked peach sandstone walls and red earth flecked with junipers, collecting tributaries for 200 miles before joining the Colorado River in Utah. The Dolores River Dialogue convened more than 40 farmers, ranchers, local government officials, off-road vehicle users, conservation group members, recreationists, and staff from land management agencies, and tasked them with talking long enough to find a compromise that, according to Jeff Widen—a senior public lands advocate with The Wilderness Society and member of the group—no one loved, but one with which everyone could live.
“There were no yelling matches, but there were some strong back-and-forths of people shaking their heads and saying, ‘Ah, we just can’t go there,’” Widen recalls.
Group members repeatedly visited the river they were discussing. They drove the Dolores River Road, talking about the route’s popularity with off-road vehicles and mountain bikers and crucial access points to Snaggletooth Rapid, the river’s most aggressive. They discussed seasonal wildlife closures. They met with private landowners and heard their concerns. They held more meetings, divided into subcommittees. Eventually, they wore down, like stones in a river. Or, if the people didn’t, the document they gathered to write did.
Their work yielded a bill introduced to Congress in March to create the Dolores River National Conservation Area. It’s legislation for a river written by those closest to it. The bill holds the promise of protecting the river and its corridor of old growth pines and red canyons from dams and other development. But what a river really needs to be a river is water, and there’s little to be had. Only in high water years like this one, with the San Miguel and Dolores river basins at 180% average snowpack in early April, will the river run for recreational boating or flow in a way that preserves its function in the ecosystem.
“Even when we’re just looking at the water rights and irrigation, those folks have been taking a hit, and then there’s certainly not enough left over for the natural environment, and then for recreational releases,” says Amber Clark, executive director of Dolores River Boating Advocates and a member of the Dolores’ working group. “The whole system is definitely taking a hit, and everybody and everything has been impacted negatively the last few years.”
Bring in the Feds
The Dolores River working group was spurred to action by a federal analysis that identified 109 miles of the river between McPhee Dam, north of Cortez, and the Western Slope town of Bedrock for possible Wild and Scenic River designation in 2007. The working group’s members were asked to consider whether that tool was best and, if not, propose a substitute. Consensus landed on creating a national conservation area instead. Though still designated by Congress, the approach was seen as more pliable and place-based than the ready-made framework of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
“The water user community—West-wide, but particularly in Colorado—hates the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act,” Widen says.
Less than 1/10th of 1 percent of Colorado’s rivers—just 76 miles of the Cache La Poudre north of Rocky Mountain National Park—have Wild and Scenic status, often considered the stiffest protections a river can secure. Since 2009, state legislators have even dedicated up to $400,000 per year to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to support groups developing alternatives to it, including for the Dolores River.
“There’s just a strong preference for state-based solutions,” says Brandy Logan, water resources specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Wild and Scenic Rivers typically include a “federally reserved water right.” That water right would have allocated a share of the Dolores’ water to the federal government to keep in the river to protect the qualities that made it Wild and Scenic, including native fish and recreation opportunities. Water rights in western states, including Colorado, often allocate entire rivers to the farms and cities alongside them, leaving none for the river itself. That framework, particularly now, two decades into a drought, has pushed riparian ecosystems and native fish onto precarious ground.
A Wild and Scenic River’s water right can’t subtract from existing water users; it can only speak for water that isn’t already someone else’s. “Nevertheless,” Widen says, “there’s just very longstanding opposition to Wild and Scenic Rivers.”
A federally held water right would open the door to the feds, with their deep pockets and numerous lawyers, challenging other water users along the river and taking the matter to federal court instead of Colorado’s water court. Roy Smith, who works on water rights, instream flow protection and Wild and Scenic Rivers for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, explains, “That’s what many of the stakeholders are concerned about—that some of that procedural control where they’re able to be in the process might evaporate.”
The BLM oversees most of the land in the proposed new conservation area and has managed those river miles for decades as though they were Wild and Scenic to protect the possibility that they might someday be. The bill specifically withdraws the area from consideration as a Wild and Scenic River. But it preserves much of what a Wild and Scenic designation would have, even copying over some language. Specifically, dams are banned, as is development that would negatively affect the river, like new roads, mining claims, or oil and gas leases. For the conservation and recreation community, Clark says, “There was a willingness to have a conversation about a different tool to use, but there were some components of protections that are afforded currently under Wild and Scenic suitability that we just weren’t willing to compromise on.”
Sen. Michael Bennet is working to pass this legislation, with Sen. John Hickenlooper, both Democrats. Rep. Lauren Boebert, the famously gun-toting Republican who represents the Western Slope, introduced a companion bill in the U.S. House. Boebert told the Durango Herald she sees the bill as striking a balance of protecting the area without “trampling on the rights and liberties of the American people.” In political eras past, having both senators and the local congressional representative sign on to legislation would have paved its way, Widen says, but these days, nothing moves so easily through Congress.
If the bill passes, it’ll likely be tacked on to another must-pass bill on the budget or a defense bill. There’s also hope for a package of land management bills that would bundle conservation efforts around the country. In any case, the route forward is sinuous and uncertain.
A Transformed River
In the meantime, the Dolores lives as a transformed river. The McPhee Dam made for a narrower, shallower channel. Without spring floods, where and how native plants like narrow leaf cottonwoods and willows grow along the river has changed. Native fish species, the flannelmouth sucker, bluehead sucker, and roundtail chub, are declining, though monitoring efforts paired with this new conservation area seek to reverse that disturbing trend.
Then, there’s the drought wringing out the Southwest since 2000. Less than 40 cubic feet per second of water dribbled downstream in the Dolores for much of last year. The river hasn’t been boatable since 2019, but will be this year as snowpack is expected to fill the reservoir and allow for “spilling” water downstream for a proper whitewater season.
“What we’re seeing more and more is that there’s not enough water every year to fill the reservoir. Recreational releases are not happening every year, and there have been some major hits to the downstream environment and native fish populations because at times in the last couple of years, there was barely a trickle coming out of the dam,” Clark says. “Then as you get further down, the river’s drying up, and there just are some stagnant pools. A lot of ecological issues come from that.”
Colorado could allocate more water to the Dolores River. If those rights could be purchased or leased from a senior water holder, they might even hold out in low water years. But it’s still a tense situation.
“Our conservation partners say, ‘You’ve been at the table for 15 years; why can’t you get more water in the river?’ It’s because there’s no more water to be gotten. It’s owned. It would be like saying, ‘Why don’t you tear down your neighbor’s house and build a new one?’” Widen says. “The boating community has tried and tried to find a way to put more water in the river, and it simply can’t be done.”
Elizabeth Miller is an independent journalist based in New Mexico who covers environmental issues and outdoor sports. Her work has been published in Backpacker, Outside, Scientific American, Undark, and The Washington Post, and has been anthologized in Best American Travel Writing 2021.
Cover Photo Courtesy Jeff Widen