If ever there was an enigma wrapped in a riddle, it would be the Dolores River. Not only does the “River of Sorrows” take an abrupt northward about-face on its 250-mile journey to the Colorado River, but the origins of the name itself (“El Rio de Nuestra Senora de las Dolores,” possibly bestowed by a Spanish explorer in the mid 1700s) are shrouded in mystery. However, more than 250 years after the first white settlers laid eyes on it, the Dolores continues to confound those looking to protect the increasingly precious resource. “It’s a complicated river,” said Amber Kelley, a Cortez native who now lives in Dolores and works as the Dolores River Campaign Coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance. In her role, Kelley helps head up the Dolores River Coalition, a group conservation and recreation organizations that “care about the fate of the Dolores River.” The coalition, in turn, gives input to the Dolores River Dialogue, a broader group made up of stakeholders from farmers to federal agencies. That group formed in 2004 with the goal of balancing ecological conditions of the stretch of river below McPhee Reservoir with water rights, and recreational interests. To make things more complex, that Dolores River Dialogue, or DRD, dovetailed in 2008 to help form the Lower Dolores Management Plan Working Group. Also made up of a broad cross section of interests, the work group is preparing recommendations for an update to the San Juan Public Lands Center’s 1990 Dolores River Management Plan, slated for later this fall. Throw in the Bureau of Reclamation and Dolores Water Conservancy, which oversee operation of McPhee Dam, the Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for management of much of the river’s surrounding public lands, as well as a Wilderness Study Area, Wild and Scenic River suitability and increasing pressures from the mining and oil and gas industry, and the scenario has more twists and turns than the meandering river itself.
Nevertheless, there is an overriding theme to it all: protection of the Dolores and its myriad uses. It is this common thread that has been guiding the work group’s attempt to reconcile the different uses with preserving the river, or in some cases, bringing it back to life…
The work group has divided the river into eight distinct sections, but the bulk of concern is over the first five, from the dam to the confluence with the San Miguel River. [Mike Preston, manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy] said the four major areas of concern include: the health of the cold-water fishery, including non-native trout; the warm-water fishery, which includes native species such as suckers, chubs and minnows; the riparian zone, which includes eradication of tamarisk and re-establishment of native cottonwoods and willows; as well as the geomorphology, including sediment build up and flow. “The opportunities to do something positive for the river vary from reach to reach,” said Preston. “The original flow from McPhee was designed with the sport fishery in mind, but the objective now has grown much broader.”[...]
the Lower Dolores is also home to the eastwood monkeyflower and the kachina daisy, both found in only a few dozen sites throughout the Four Corners. Aside from the stresses low flows put on the downstream ecology, [Ann Oliver, the South San Juan Mountains Project Director for the Nature Conservancy] sees the biggest threats to the Lower Dolores as invasive species, such as tamarisk and Russian knapweed, and the extractive industry. In addition to past and possible future uranium mining in the area, natural gas drilling could also have impacts. Recently, the Denver-based Bill Barrett Corp. began conducting natural gas exploration in Paradox Valley using Dolores River Project water in the hydraulic frac-ing process.