I’ve only done two overnight raft trips on the lower Dolores River. Once in my first spring in Telluride, 2017, from Slickrock to Gateway. The second in the historic spring runoff in June 2019, from Bradfield Bridge (just below McPhee Reservoir, the most upstream boat launch) to Slickrock. Logically, my next trip will be from Gateway to Moab, downstream of the confluence of the Dolores and Colorado rivers and some of the Dolores’ most famed rapids.
Senator Michael Bennett has introduced a bill to create the Dolores National Conservation Area (NCA) to protect 68,851 acres of public lands along the river corridor in Dolores, Montezuma and San Miguel counties. The proposed NCA bill includes a Special Management Area (SMA) adjacent to the NCA on USFS land. The proposed NCA/SMA’s upstream boundary is just downstream of McPhee Reservoir and follows the river corridor heading north and downstream past Bradfield Bridge, through the Ponderosa Gorge and concludes with its downstream boundary in the Gypsum Valley along the San Miguel-Montrose County line. The bill, supported by the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, county commissioners, local rancher and conservation groups (including Sheep Mountain Alliance), is the result of over two decades of collaboration of a diverse group of stakeholders, including counties, water managers, conservation groups, landowners, recreationists, energy companies and staff from the federal elected officials’ offices.
In the early 2000s, the lower Dolores was found suitable for a Wild and Scenic designation, which is the highest level of protection a river can receive. Dolores stakeholders pivoted to pursuing an NCA designation that allowed a wider breadth of activities while still achieving protection objectives without jeopardizing McPhee project irrigators. This includes motorized recreation designated to specific routes as part of the required travel management plan and a limit of new roads for administrative purposes only. Existing grazing areas will continue within the designated areas. Finally, existing mineral claims and leases will be honored, and new claims and leases will not be allowed.
The lower Dolores is a spectacular landscape. The proposed legislation protects epic angling opportunities immediately below McPhee Dam to sight-fish for large, wild brown and rainbow trout sipping dry flies off of the surface. It’s a major draw for local anglers and outfitters. The river within the proposed NCA presents the opportunity for one of the most iconic (and mostly unpermitted) river trips in the Southwest. Ponderosa Gorge is reminiscent of a larger, deeper San Miguel River Canyon in Sawpit and Placerville, without any paved roads or development. Old growth Ponderosas descend down to the riverbanks. Water laps at their trunks during high flows. The aptly named and most famous rapid of the Dolores, class IV Snaggletooth, resides here. Downstream of the Ponderosa Gorge the river transitions to classic red rock geology as it cuts through the Colorado Plateau. Near Slickrock the river flows through “Little Glen Canyon” named for placid waters and large walls of Wingate Sandstone along the river. Beyond the Gypsum Valley and downstream boundary of the NCA the river is no less scenic. The Dolores contains compressed oxbows and giant canyon walls before transecting the Paradox Valley. The river then picks up its northern Wilson Massif sister tributary, our San Miguel, and heads through Gateway towards Moab and the Colorado River. The lower Dolores is home to three native warm water species whose populations are decreasing across the Colorado Basin: the flannelmouth sucker, roundtail chub and razorback sucker. These are Colorado state species of concern and there is potential for their listing in the Endangered Species Act without further protection of their habitat on the local level.
The NCA has no implications on water rights and will not return flows to the Dolores. The barrier preventing more frequent boating forays down the iconic lower Dolores is lack of water. Long-term, climate-induced drought has reduced yearly snowpacks and soil moisture, resulting in severely diminished flows in the Dolores River Basin. There is no clear or easy answer for this difficult and complex problem. The NCA legislation is a step in the right direction to protect an iconic Colorado landscape that contains crucial wildlife corridors, key native fish habitat, cultural and historical resources, and abundant recreational opportunities. Protecting this large landscape promotes healthy ecosystems and climate resiliency of the Western Slope in the long run. One of the most important achievements of the proposed bill is the successful collaboration of diverse stakeholders. This cannot be stressed enough. In order to meet the growing demands of natural resource management, water scarcity and climate change in the Colorado River Basin everyone needs to work together with an open mind. More of these types of coalitions and collaboratives are necessary across the Western Slope, Colorado and the West to meet the future natural resource challenges. Protecting water rights, upholding Colorado’s requirements of the Colorado River Compact, protecting native species, restoring wetlands and riparian corridors, providing recreational opportunities, sequestering carbon, and maintaining water supplies for agricultural and municipal uses are all going to require creative, adaptive solutions developed through these types of stakeholder committees.
In our own backyard the San Miguel Partnership recently brought upper and lower San Miguel Basin stakeholders together to create a comprehensive list of largely environmental and recreational local water projects to meet water use needs of the future. This was a very successful process, but the work is only just beginning. The projects need sponsorship, funding, planning and engineering before any on-the-ground implementation can be done. The keystone to all of this work is the maintenance of positive relationships developed between our stakeholders.
The Dolores River is a Colorado treasure. It deserves to be protected. Opportunities to run the river have become limited. Next time the spring snowpack allows, you’ll find me floating the full 134 lower Dolores, from McPhee to Moab.