After dam release, river runs through the Lower Dolores — The Durango Herald

Dolores River Canyon near Paradox from the Coyote Gulch archives.
Dolores River Canyon near Paradox from the Coyote Gulch archives.

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Overgrown banks, loads of sediment in the waterway and a depleted fishery cast a pale backdrop to an otherwise awe-inspiring float down the lower Dolores River, known for its deep canyons, lush ponderosa forests and seemingly endless succession of whitewater.

“And all of that is just a reflection of the channel starting to reflect the current hydrology,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologist Jim White. “It has changed.”


Today, water out of McPhee Reservoir, considered the most expensive allotments in the Southwest, mainly supplies farms growing alfalfa, one of the most water-intensive crops used to feed cattle.

The divisive interests between farmers and recreationists have caused a debate over water rights to rage on for almost four decades.

A different riverSince the dam operates on a “fill, then spill” policy, enough water to float the lower Dolores River is only released when the dam is at capacity, and there’s no other place to store inflows.

That hadn’t happened since 2011 – until this year, when two small releases allowed boaters as well as wildlife officials to get an inside peek at what’s been happening to the long-neglected stretch of river.

And it didn’t look good.

The wildlife division’s White said a survey of the 19-mile stretch from Bradfield Bridge to the Dove Creek Pump Station found only 150 brown trout, a non-native species, and came up nearly empty-handed on native species.

“The loss of consistent spring flow to maintain habitat, coupled with altered base flow regimes, just all adds up to where we’re seeing reduced numbers of native species,” White said. “But what struck me, just the abundance of fish in general, native and non-native, is low through that part of the canyon.”

Another discernable transformation noted by many boaters was the unbridled vegetation that has started to bottleneck the river’s original channel. It was one of the most striking changes Sam Carter, board president of the Dolores River Boating Advocates, noticed on his trip this year.

“The overgrowth was intense, and dangerous,” Carter said. “There were two places that made it dangerous to move in a rapid.”

Carter said for the most part, this year’s release was a success: The large turnout of Dolores River aficionados worked together at boat launches, the weather made for hot days and warm nights, and the past year’s lack of access to the river left campgrounds, and the canyon in general, as wild as ever.

Yet a larger issues looms.

“This one spill is not the answer,” Carter said. “There has to be a change in the paradigm how that water is used. The river is getting killed. It’s a slow process, but it is happening.”

Is change possible?Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores River Water Conservancy District, said at this point, it is “highly, highly unlikely” that any changes would occur to the management plan for the Dolores River.

Preston, a boater himself who took a trip on the Dolores River this year, said many farmers in the area made large investments setting farms up based on the water allocations.

“One boating day at 1,000 cubic feet per second is enough water to irrigate 1,000 acres for a full season,” he said. “And the farmers are paying us to maintain the facilities. And they also make payments to the federal government.”

Indeed, John Porter, a farmer turned Dolores Water Conservancy District manager who retired in 2002, said he’s clear in his bias for use of the river.

“There’s another side of it,” Porter said. “Do you just quit farming in this area and leave the water in the river? Until McPhee, it was dry river in the summertime because all the water was diverted. This project at least keeps it as a full-time river.”

Though the Dolores flowed anywhere from 800 to 1,500 cfs during the release, river levels throughout the year remain chronically low. In 2013, for instance, the river was at a trickle at just 13 cfs. The boating advocate’s president Carter said that doesn’t exactly constitute a healthy, flourishing river.

Carter said the group is “very actively” working on ways to secure annual releases out of McPhee for the benefit of recreationists and the environment.

“It’s not going to happen overnight, but we’re definitely working on it,” Carter said.

But for now, as the Dolores River slowly returns to its dispossessed flows, boaters look with a mixture of frustration and optimism toward next year.

“It was very much a bigger adventure than I think most people anticipated,” said Josh Munson, a board member of the Dolores River Boating Advocates. “Many longtime boaters noted the same things. It was faster, more wild. But the lack of water is really changing the characteristic of the river itself.

“When there isn’t a recreational release, it really isn’t much of a river.”

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed

Radar blind spot exposes Southwest Colorado to dangerous storms — The Durango Herald

Graphic credit Cliff Vancura via The Durango Herald and Rocky Mountain PBS.
Graphic credit Cliff Vancura via The Durango Herald and Rocky Mountain PBS.

From the Cortez Journal via The Durango Herald (Jim Mimiaga):

“We can’t forecast what we can’t see, whether it’s water supply or extreme weather,” said Joe Busto, a researcher with the Colorado Water Conservation District.

Weather conditions and forecasts for the region rely on radar installations in Grand Junction, Flagstaff and Albuquerque. None of the stations detect low-altitude, dangerous conditions in an area that reaches from Alamosa west to the Grand Canyon, and from Gallup north to Moab, said Jim Pringle, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.

“We would like to see a radar station in that area,” he said. “On the weather maps, you can see the gap in your area where radar does not hit.”

Over the past few years, several severe and damaging storms hit the Four Corners without warning. They include:

On Feb. 22 and 23, 2015, a winter storm hit San Juan County, Utah, with forecasts for 11-16 inches of snow. The storm dumped up to 3 feet of snow in the northeast Navajo Nation, leaving waist-high drifts in some areas. The Navajo tribe declared a state of emergency. Local roads became impassable and an estimated 350 families were snowed in. Multiple power outages were reported, and cellphone towers were inoperable. Schools in Bluff and Montezuma Creek were closed until March 2 and 3, respectively, and schools in Monument Valley were closed through early March.

In summer 2015 on Southern Ute land, a funnel cloud was reportedly witnessed by government officials, but faraway radar stations couldn’t detect it. Residents had no warning.
On Sept. 23, 2015, a severe hailstorm at Vallecito Reservoir caught residents by surprise. The storm produced hailstones up to 1.25 inches in diameter and killed a mallard duck.

On Dec. 23-24, 2015, more than a foot of snow fell during a blizzard that caused white-out conditions and closed U.S. Highway 491 from Cortez to Monticello for 17 hours. The storm caused a 19-car pileup and stranded motorists. The potential for significant snowfall was missed because weather radar couldn’t see the changing, low-altitude storm.

In radar blind spots, on-the-ground weather watchers such as meteorologist Jim Andrus of Cortez provide the eyes for the Weather Service’s real-time weather data.

“I’ve had several incidents where there were no radar echoes showing up on the weather channel, but it’s raining or snowing outside,” Andrus said.

The lanky, silver-haired apartment manager with a weather-science mission is constantly looking up, monitoring the skies where technology fails. For 19 years, he’s filed regular reports to the NWS using the internet at the Cortez Public Library.

His on-the-ground reports often fill gaps in forecasts. In summer 2014, Andrus alerted the service to a severe storm that approached Cortez from a blind spot near Ute Mountain. The storm had the potential for hail and high winds, and NWS issued a warning based on Andrus’ report from the ground…

Radar just one set of eyes

The National Weather Service relies on three levels of reporting to provide forecasts for Four Corners residents. If one falls short, the forecast does too.

Satellite images show cloud activity from above and are valuable because they show the reach and route of storms. Ground-based radar, such as a Doppler system, looks into a cloud to determine the potential for precipitation and the severity of storms.

Blind spots are caused in part by the curvature of the Earth. When straight-line radar beams reach Southwest Colorado from the closest station in Grand Junction, they’re too high to do much good.

“In Durango for example, the radar’s lowest angle is 23,500 feet, but the top of winter storm clouds is at 18,000 feet,” Pringle said. “We’re not seeing the whole picture.”

In Cortez, the radar’s lowest reach is at an altitude of 23,000 feet. At Bluff, Utah, it’s 27,000 feet, and at the Navajo Nation south of Bluff, it’s 29,000 feet. In Pagosa Springs, it’s even worse, an altitude of 39,000 feet.

Radar benefits water supply

Since 2009, the Colorado Water Conservation District has partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to research the need for radar in Southwest Colorado for more accurate water supply forecasts in rivers and reservoirs.

The study placed a temporary Doppler radar at the San Luis Regional Airport in Alamosa during the 2014-15 winter and compared its water supply data with radar maps from the weather service’s faraway installations. “The forecast was four times more accurate,” said Busto, a water district researcher and an author of the study.

“We’re building a business case that the radar black hole is killing the water world because we’re not keeping track of how much water we have,” he said.

The temporary radar will return to the Alamosa airport next winter to continue the study.

“The benefits of better observations and forecasts are tremendous,” said Craig Cotten, a Division 3 engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources. “Our compact operations are based on stream flow forecasts. Inaccurate forecasts can cause unnecessary curtailment of ditches, over or under delivery of compact obligations and disruption of priority system.”

During a runoff period from the winter of 2013-14, for example, Grand Junction radar estimated 3,000 acre-feet of water for the southern San Juan Mountains, but the temporary radar in Alamosa showed 34,000 acre-feet of water supply.

Buston said local radar more accurately reads precipitation levels in low-altitude winter storms that tend to hug the mountains.

“In our part of the world, snowpack is our water bank, and people pay to lease shares, but when we are missing how much water there is, it’s like your banker not knowing how much is in your account,” Busto said.

For example, the study showed the 2013 water year forecast was 230,000 acre-feet, and the actual water supply was 344,000 acre-feet. The 2005 forecast was for 795,000 acre feet, but the actual water supply was 683,000 acre-feet.

Water forecasters say that by adding radar data to satellite images, Snotels and stream data in place now would improve local river runoff and reservoir forecasts.

What’s the cost?

In the water conservation board study, ideal locations for a permanent radar station were determined to be at regional airports in Alamosa, Durango and Montrose. Busto said the Cortez Municipal Airport is also a potential location for a Doppler radar station.

Depending on range capability, radar units cost between $2 million and $10 million, and are typically funded by state and federal governments. Portable units run about $500,000.

After the West Fork fires in 2013, a portable Doppler radar system was installed on Wolf Creek Pass to monitor flash flood conditions in the fire-damaged area.

Busto said it was effective in detecting storms capable of generating flash flood conditions, and warnings were issued. The same storms did not show up on radar systems in Grand Junction.

“Our mission is to protect lives and property, and the more resources we have to monitor weather, such as radar, then we can do that better,” Pringle said.

Busto pointed out that relying on satellite data to determine flash flood potential caused a “cry wolf” scenario for emergency managers. Every time satellite showed clouds in the area, erroneous warnings were sent out to residents, but nothing would happen.

Improved radar coverage would also improve airport operations, said Russ Machen, manager for Cortez Municipal Airport.

During winter storms, Machen relies on weather forecasts to plow the runways, and when the forecast is off, it can delay runway maintenance.

“The pilots would also appreciate more accurate regional radar to determine flight conditions,” he said.

Hundreds of boaters raft Dolores for first time in four years — The Cortez Journal

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

Over the weekend, hundreds of boaters took advantage of a three-day whitewater release on the Dolores River below McPhee dam, the first in four years.

Reservoir managers said Sunday, the minimum rafting flows will continue until at least Tuesday, June 7.

The weekend whitewater release was announced last week on short notice, and within hours, the boat ramps at Bradfield Bridge and Dove Creek Pumphouse began filling up local boaters and their brightly colored rafts, kayaks, canoes and dories…

Friday morning, a parade of boats disappeared into the sunny Ponderosa Gorge, the first leg of 97-mile stretch to Slick Rock that features rapids, camp spots, remote hiking and spectacular scenery.

Bears roamed the shorelines and campsites, and were startled by the sudden presence of humans. River otters swam among boaters, and desert big horn sheep looked on from above.

A new rock fall in the river at mile-marker 17.2 can be skirted river left.

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed

It’ll be crowded on the Dolores River tomorrow — first boating release in a while

Dolores River near Bedrock
Dolores River near Bedrock

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga) via The Durango Herald:

A whitewater boating release below McPhee Dam will begin at 1 a.m. Friday and last at least three days.

Flows will be ramped up to at least 800 cubic feet per second by early Friday morning, and will remain at that level through Sunday, June 5.

Reservoir managers said the recreational release could lengthen, and flows may go higher as the reservoir fills and water is sent downriver.

The spill was delayed until warm weather brought the runoff forecast into focus.

A peak is expected in June on the Upper Dolores River as mountain snowpack melts.

It takes a few hours for release to reach the Bradfield Bridge put-in and other boat ramps.

The release will taper off late Sunday, ramping down from 800 cfs to 600 cfs over two days. From there, the river will drop down to 400 cfs over two days, then 200 cfs and finally 65 cfs. Minimum boatable flows for rafts is 800 cfs to 600 cfs; minimum for kayaks flow is 300 cfs to 400 cfs.

Smaller rafts and kayaks could enjoy five to seven days of boating run in the 100-mile canyon below McPhee.

After Sunday, decisions about releases will be posted on the McPhee Reservoir website.

Documentary filmmaker Rig to Flip has been monitoring the Lower Dolores and has identified and photographed a new boulder field and rapid upstream of the Dove Creek pump house and boat ramp.

Whitewater release announced for the Lower Dolores — The Cortez Journal

Dolores River near Bedrock
Dolores River near Bedrock

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiga):

Reservoir managers have announced a 10-day spill at an approximate rate of 1,000 cubic feet per second. However the plan is to begin the release the first weekend of June instead of over Memorial Day as forecasted last week.

“There will be a spill, and by pushing it forward we’re setting up the boaters for a longer season with improved rafting flows,” said Mike Preston, manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District.

Warmer weather beyond the current five-day forecast could accelerate the start of the spill by a few days.

McPhee will fill and provide full farmer allocations, with an estimated left-over water for rafting.

Cooler, stormy weather and significant snowpack holding in the mountains forced managers to adjust the timing of the spill until the first weekend of June.

Reservoir managers are waiting on a second peak runoff from remaining snowpack.

Preston said the decision for the delay is to avoid the possibility two small spills and their associated ramp-up and ramp-down water needs. For safety, spills are gradually increased 200 cfs at a time, then reversed at the end of the controlled spill.

Releasing rafting flows for Memorial Day weekend was not seen as ideal for boaters because managers would have to stop it to allow the reservoir to fill. Then a second spill would likely be required to avoid overfilling the reservoir as the second peak finishes coming down.

“Delaying for one release saves ramping water to extend the season,” Preston said.

The benefits of a single combined spill of rafting flows allows for longer trips and less down-river congestion of boaters.

The district worked closely with the Dolores River Boating Advocates on the early June release decision.

“There has been definite improvement in communication between the reservoir managers and the boating community,” said DRBA board member Wade Hanson. “DWCD and the Bureau of Reclamation have been on the ball with timely public notice about a release.”

Boaters should be aware of some new changes on the Lower Dolores River.

The usual private land available for a public take-out/put-in at Slickrock is closed.

However, another landowner is negotiating with the DRBA to open public access point on land just downstream of the bridge at Slick Rock near the old store.

Farther down river, the BLM’s Big Gypsum Valley river access remains open.

Boaters should be especially alert this season on the Lower Dolores because it has not been floated for many years.

A large boulder fall has been reported in Ponderosa Gorge upstream of the Dove Creek pump house at mile 17, and debris flows and log jams are a real possibility.

Also expect campsites throughout the 100-mile section to Bedrock to be overgrown.

“It’s exciting to get on the Lower Dolores after all these years,” said Hanson said. “We will be taking a lot of pictures and GPS coordinates of the campsites to inform the public.”

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed

Whitewater seekers might get crack at Dolores River – The Durango Herald

Dolores River near Bedrock
Dolores River near Bedrock

From The Durango Herald (Sue McMillin):

The Dolores Water Conservancy District announced on its website on Monday that recent heavy precipitation, including what’s in the forecast for this week, would likely fill McPhee Reservoir and allow for a boating release. If it happens, it would be the first since 2011.

The water district said that the precipitation combined with a cool, slow start to irrigation season has left the reservoir just 12 feet below full.

“A boating release will likely cover the Memorial Day weekend and last 5-10 days at 1,000 +/- CFS (cubic feet per second),” the website says.

The district says it will continue to keep boaters updated through the week.

The Dolores River was dammed in the late 1980s, which created McPhee Reservoir to ensure domestic water supply for Cortez and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and irrigation for more than 70,000 acres of otherwise arid land.

For the latest on the reservoir levels, visit

Dolores water district unveils $8 million in upgrades — The Cortez Journal

La Plata Mountains from the Great Sage Plain
La Plata Mountains from the Great Sage Plain

From the Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

Five automated, high-tech pumping stations do the heavy lifting of pulling water from canals and pushing it through pipes to farms. Another pump system at the Great Cut Dike pulls water from McPhee Reservoir into the Dove Creek Canal and onto the pumping stations.

The Dolores Water Conservancy District and the Bureau of Reclamation have teamed up for $8 million worth of upgrades for the 20-year-old pumping stations.

The four-year plan includes upgrading the electronic communication control system, or SCADA, which operates irrigation deliveries from a main control room.

So far, three out of six pumping plants have been overhauled: Fairview, Pleasant View and Ruin Canyon. Next on the list are Dove Creek, Cahone, the Great Cut Dike and the SCADA system. Final upgrades will begin after irrigation seasons and be completed over the next two years.

Water officials and engineers touted the upgrades during a public tour Thursday at the Pleasant View pump station. At Ruin Canyon, two pumps were rebuilt, and two variable-speed electric motors were replaced. The electronic drive systems were also replaced.

The same upgrade occurred at the Ruin Canyon pump station, with a total cost for both upgrades of $1.25 million.

“They are more efficient, run cooler and require less maintenance,” said DWCD engineer Lloyd Johnson. “They will last another 20 to 25 years.”

The variable speed pumps adjust to irrigation demand. As the pressure fluctuates, the electronic drive system directs the pumps to adjust and keep the pressure steady. The drive system automatically turns on other static pumps as demand requires.

“We’re here to meet demand of the farmer,” said engineer Ken Curtis. “They pay high dollar for volume when they want it, and that is why we have a big crew of electricians and mechanics to ensure it is all working.”

The Bureau of Reclamation built the dams and reservoirs and pays to update them, said Brent Rhees, BOR’s regional director for the Upper Colorado River region.

He explained that a portion of power revenues generated from Glen Canyon dam and other BOR hydro-electric plants are set aside to pay for project upgrades like the one at the Dolores Project.

“These upgrades are satisfying to see because they keep us grounded in our mission to deliver water,” Rheese said. “The BOR has transitioned to resource management of existing projects.”

DWCD chipped in $1 million toward the project.