Dolores River: Water Protection Work Group formed to protect ag and muni interests

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed

From the Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

The newly formed Water Protection Work Group was created in response to a proposed National Conservation Area for the lower Dolores River.

The WPWG seeks to protect municipal and agricultural water supplies in Montezuma and Dolores counties from any consequence arising from NCA legislation.

Participants include Phyllis Snyder, Larry Don Suckla, Zane Odell, Doug Stowe, Greg Black, Don Schwindt, Drew Gordanier, Bernard Karwick, Bob Bragg, Keenan Ertel and Gerald Koppenhafer.

The recently released their minimum requirements and recommendations to David Robbins, a Colorado water attorney who has reviewed the NCA proposal.

“Prior public promises that the NCA ‘is not about taking water’ are appreciated and allow us to move forward with some assurance,” the group states in a memo. “Ambiguity and conflicting provisions must be left out of the NCA draft legislation.”

Some of the recommendations include:

The group wants the preamble of the NCA to be more specific about the Dolores River’s importance as the region’s sole water supply.

A proposed advisory committee in the draft NCA legislation requires more thorough definition.

The draft NCA bill must be written to explicitly prohibit any federal express or implied water rights on the Dolores River.

The draft NCA bill must release the Dolores River, upstream from the confluence with the San Miguel River, from consideration under the Wild and Scenic River’s Act. The recommendation also stipulates that no wild and scenic river portions below the San Miguel confluence can reach upstream water rights.

The NCA shall not affect the Dolores Project or the operation of McPhee Reservoir in any way.

The draft NCA bill has language prohibiting the building of large scale water projects. The WPWG recommends that large scale water projects be defined to exclude all existing projects, diversion, structures and water rights. Also, they recommend that the proposed NCA must not impact future projects under Colorado state water law that do not exceed 50,000 acre feet of annual use.

The group also wants written into any NCA legislation that management plans will not impact or influence releases or spills from McPhee dam, the water upstream from McPhee Dam, or the Dolores Project.

In April 2015, a legislative subcommittee of the Lower Dolores Plan Working Group released a draft bill that would designated a portion of the river an NCA and another portion a wilderness area.

In exchange, the river’s suitability status for a wild and scenic river below McPhee dam would be dropped.

The proposed Dolores River National Conservation Area would stretch from below the dam at Bradfield Bridge to Bedrock, Colo., and include the river and public land on both sides.

The draft bill also proposes to designate the Dolores Canyon Wilderness Area, a 30,119-acre swath of remote canyonlands that has been managed as a BLM wilderness study area for decades.

According to the draft, the Wilderness Area boundary would be located at the edge of the river, and no portion of the Dolores River will be included in it.

However, the draft bill shows the Dolores river would be part of the NCA, including where it runs through the wilderness area.

Dolores River Canyon near Paradox
Dolores River Canyon near Paradox

Dolores Community Center: Wild & Scenic Film Festival, January 22

Click here for all the inside skinny from Conservation Colorado. From the website:

Conservation Colorado is joining Montezuma Land Conservancy as they host the 5th Annual Wild & Scenic Film Festival! Doors will open at 5:45 PM and films will roll at 6:30 PM. FREE wine and Dolores River Brewery beer will be provided. Yummy food will be sold separately by the Dolores PTO. Eleven inspiring films will be shown, and there will be door prizes and an awesome drawing for new members. Come learn more about conservation while enjoying local beer and great films!

Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door, $5 for children.

To purchase tickets, click here.


#Snowpack news: “This [San Juan SWE] is way better than where we were last year” — Brian Domonkos

From the Telluride Daily Planet (Stephen Elliott):

The first Colorado water supply outlook report of the year brought good news for the state and particularly the San Miguel Watershed. The report, released Jan. 1 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, found that the statewide snowpack is at 118 percent of normal, the most plentiful start to a winter water season since 2011.

After several dry years, heavy precipitation early this winter and fall replenished reservoirs around the state, allowing water managers to take a cautiously optimistic look at what the summer might bring.

“To be at this point at the beginning of the year is usually a good thing,” said Brian Domonkos, snow survey supervisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Colorado program. “What we can really hope for is a prolonged spring where temperatures stay pretty cool. Hopefully it stays cool well into the summer and that runoff will run off nice and even and it’ll be a nice water supply headed into the summer.”

But weather is never a sure bet, and Domonkos said it was still early to predict a healthy water season.

“We’ve only reached about the halfway point when it comes to our snowpack accumulation season. There’s a lot that can change,” he said. “It’s not the easiest for the weather in the mountains to maintain (those high levels of precipitation), but it’s certainly possible, and it could be higher.”

All major river basins in the state have above-normal snowpacks, according to the report, but the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan basins are collectively the highest above normal, at 130 percent. In the combined southwestern Colorado basin, which includes Telluride, December storms dropped a whopping 174 percent of the average precipitation for the month.

The Telluride Ski Resort has already reported 161 inches of snow for the season.

Reservoir storage in the combined basin is at 103 percent of average, compared to 88 percent at this time last year.

The Colorado Snow Survey’s snowpack and streamflow forecasts put the San Miguel at 161 percent of normal snowpack, the highest in the combined basin. The other river basins range from the La Plata River, at 108 percent of normal snowpack, to the Dolores River, at 157 percent of normal snowpack.

Domonkos added that the San Miguel has about twice as much water in its snowpack as at this point last year; a positive improvement, but also nowhere near record levels.

“This is way better than where we were last year, but we are a good long ways from where the maximum is,” he said.
That snow is so important because it holds the water that will keep the West green in the summer. 3rd Annual Permit Party, Friday, January 15


From the announcement:

Join us Friday, January 15 for our 3rd Annual Permit Party and the film premiere of “River of Sorrow” by Rig to Flip. Doors open at 6PM and the film starts at 7. Live music by Last Nickel begins at 8. A silent auction with incredible gear and adventures (like a trip for 2 down the Yampa River!) will be held from 6 to 8:30. Tasty vittles from Absolute Bakery and beer from Dolores River Brewery will be available for purchase. Childcare and children’s activities will be provided so bring the whole family! Tickets are $10 at the door, $5 for students, and kids 12 and under are free! Don’t miss this incredible annual celebration of the Dolores River!

Snowpack news

Statewide snowpack map December 28, 2015 via the NRCS.
Statewide snowpack map December 28, 2015 via the NRCS.

From the Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

McPhee Reservoir, the Dolores Water Conservancy District, and its farmers are getting a double dose of holiday cheer.

Snowpack is piling up early in the San Juan Mountains, the best start to winter in a couple of years.

Preliminary snowfall totals from the Dec. 22-23 storm in the San Juan Mountains are 24 inches of fresh powder, according to the National Weather Service.

Snotels – devices placed throughout the Dolores Basin measuring snowpack in real time – are reporting above-average snowfall. They are used to predict runoff into McPhee Reservoir, which ended the irrigation season with decent carryover storage.

The El Diente Snotel is at 145 percent of normal, the Lizard Head Snotel is at 130 percent of normal, and the Scotch Creek Snotel is at 135 percent of normal.

Those numbers will climb even higher as updates comes in, said NWS meteorologist Andrew Lyons.

“Plus we’re tracking another storm for Christmas Eve that is expected to be a real snow maker for the Western Slope,” he said. “It’s stronger to the north, but will likely bring snowfall your way as well.”

Another gift for the district is the award of up to $3 million in grants from the Bureau of Reclamation to overhaul several pumping stations in time for the 2016 farming season.

Ruin Canyon, Pleasant View, Cahone, and Dove Creek pumping stations are all having critical infrastructure replaced. The pumps are 25 years old.

Dolores River film explores water conflicts common in West — The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

A new documentary slated for a January release lays bare the rigid conflicts over water use along the drought-stricken Dolores River, as irrigators, rafters and others strive for some sort of balance.

About a year ago, Dolores River Boating Advocates received a grant from Patagonia to create a film about the spectrum of issues that surround the Dolores River.

River filmmakers Rig to Flip won the bid and spent more than 50 days filming this summer. Now in post-production, project director Cody Perry said the documentary – “River of Sorrows: The Dolores River Project” – will premiere in Dolores on Jan. 15.

“The Dolores River represents some of the most important issues facing communities throughout the West,” Perry said. “It’s really a case study on the dangers of a transbasin diversion.”

The Dolores River was dammed in the late 1980s, effectively forming McPhee Reservoir, and various stakeholders drafted the Dolores Project Plan, which set out to secure water supplies – in years past water flows would either run dry or dangerously low because of overuse.

Most of the water was allocated to irrigate more than 70,000 acres of otherwise arid land, allowing farmers to extend the planting season through September. However, the top priority on the list was communities outside the river’s basin reliant on the water for domestic purposes: namely, the city of Cortez and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

When all was said and done, annual downstream releases of the Dolores were more than cut in half. Add that to nearly two decades of drought in the Colorado River basin, and it’s no wonder tensions have arisen over water rights.

Critics of the Dolores Project, namely boaters, say the plan leaves little room for fisheries and recreation to thrive on the river. Though those two uses are part of the plan, high levels of water are released only in years of excess, which have become increasingly rare.

“My approach to managing the district is that all of these things matter,” said Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District. “Providing water to farms is highly critical to those families and the local economy, and providing water to the community is obviously very important.

“But we are equally obligated by law to take care of the fishery, and provide boating days,” he said. “I take those obligations as seriously as the others.”

Lee-Ann Hill, program coordinator for the Dolores River Boating Advocates, said because water managers allocate only a few days a year to large releases, it’s difficult to plan trips in advance and sustain a livelihood…

“We wanted to portray the matrix,” she said. “Every user has an idea that’s probably through the lens of their dominant use. But at the end of the day, we need to use this source together.”

And Hill, who has rafted the Dolores River in good years, can’t express enough to those who have never had the chance how important it is to reopen the lower portions of the river.

“It’s magical,” she said. “It’s been compared to other legendary rivers and canyons, like the Grand Canyon and Salmon River, and it’s true. Passing through it is a really different experience. It just resonates.”

Perry acknowledged that in making a film as an avid rafter, backed by a boating advocate group, it was important to let the people invested in the Dolores River from all sides tell the story.

“We don’t really have an agenda, or believe in that kind of thing,” he said. “If anything, it’s the people telling the story. The story exists out there will all these constituents, and we’re really guided by a single question: What do we stand to inherit here?”

Preston said when an outsider comes in and puts a spotlight on something as sensitive as the Dolores River, it can go either way: The film can needlessly stir up emotions, or be a useful tool for communication and education…

The filmmakers are now asking for donations through an IndieGoGo page for the final editing costs associated with the documentary. Perry said he plans to show the film throughout the region and, he hopes, beyond.

Watering the West: How pioneers built local towns through irrigation — The Watch

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed

From The Watch (Regan Tuttle):

Telluride’s early days, survival depended dearly on water. The enterprises that built the region — farming, ranching and mining — required irrigation from rivers, and lots of it. Of course, water becomes scarcer the farther one moves from the mountains or from the San Miguel River.

For the pioneers, creating an infrastructure that could sustain them in the short term and withstand the march of progress was no easy task. Suffering cold conditions, subsisting on biscuits and beans, laboring with shovels, axes and other hand tools, pioneers worked to channel water from its source to where they needed it.
Back then, this was legal. Just decades ago, as the old-timers established our local towns, “Water could be diverted from the stream, and ditches built across public and private land to convey water to its place of beneficial use,” the Colorado Foundation for Water Education reported.

“In a dry and thirsty land it is necessary to divert the waters of the streams from their natural channels,” Colorado Chief Justice Moses Hallet said in the late 1800s.


During Telluride’s early days, water was hauled from the San Miguel River and from springs on the east side of town. Wilson Rockwell said in his book “Uncompahgre Country” that a man named Dutch George in the late 1800s delivered five-gallon buckets of water from the spring at Cornet Creek to saloons and businesses on what is now Colorado Avenue for 10 cents each, two buckets at a time, balanced by a yoke around his neck.

When attorney L.L. Nunn needed water for his commercial bathhouse on the east end, he ran a garden hose from Cornet Falls. Later, in 1886, H. H. Corbin constructed a 370-foot vertical pipeline that transported water from Cornet Creek into town.

Though people then said it couldn’t be done, high pressure water was flumed from Trout Lake to help establish the Ames power plant, and later the Ilium plant, that would put Telluride on the map as the first city in the world to be powered by alternating electric current. Of course, the purpose was to support the mining industry.


For some, creating access to water was more difficult. The Town of Nucla, formerly Tabeguache Park, was founded by a socialist organization whose members wanted to escape their greedy landlords in Denver. By accident, they discovered the location that provided everything they desired: mild winters, ample sunlight, virgin soil — but no water.

Called the Colorado Cooperative Company, the members, or comrades, set up camp in the late 1800s in what became the second largest city in Montrose County to bring water to the homesteads for which they’d filed claims.
They were told their task was impossible.

“I believe [that] actually helped build the ditch. When you are told you can’t, you’ll bust a tug to do it,” Leonard F. Zatterstrom said in a memoir published in Marie Templeton’s book “The Visionaries.”

The Colorado Cooperative Company constructed a 17-mile-long wooden flume, called the CC Ditch, built along the wall of the San Miguel River canyon. David Lavender in “One Man’s West” writes that those who worked on the ditch were compensated by “credit at the commissary for food and supplies, plus water credits toward the purchase of ditch rights. The canal succeeded, and several prosperous farms sprang up.”

People like Zatterstrom worked eight-hour days building the flume, sleeping in the bunkhouse, buying their food through the company store and receiving rations of milk from the cooperative’s dairy cows.

Nucla was born when the project was completed in 1904, and “Piñon became a ghost town practically overnight,” Zatterstrom said.

But the hard work didn’t pay off for everyone. Mary Rogers was a 9-year old girl during the CC Ditch project. Because both her parents died, she went to live with her grandmother and uncles, the Heinemans, who worked on the CC Ditch. Like others, the German family came to Piñon in search of a better life, and hoped to one day own a farm.

“My mother worked in the garden and did dishes,” Norma McKeever, now 88, said. According to her, the conditions were not pleasant, especially in the winter. Rogers said the food was terrible, just biscuits and beans at the camp’s boardinghouse in the cold season. But it was worth it to the family. They’d filed a homestead claim with hopes that when the CC Ditch was done, they’d have irrigation water and could build a life.

Rogers was in her teens by the time the CC Ditch was completed. But the water didn’t reach the Heineman’s farm in 1904. The majority of the CC Ditch workers had accomplished what they’d needed for their own homesteads, and they weren’t willing to extend the project. What can you do with a farm that has no water?

Grandmother Heineman went to work as a washerwoman and housekeeper for those who owned prosperous farms. Mary Rogers got a job at the Western Hotel in Norwood. One of her uncles moved to Nevada and never came back.

McKeever said the Heinemans, buried in the pauper site at Nucla Cemetery, weren’t the only ones to feel cheated out of their homestead dreams.

Though socialism failed, the town has not. Water still serves Nucla to this day, though the wooden flume has mostly been replaced by more practical means. The town celebrates the water victory every July with their Water Days celebration.


Wilson Barrett of Redvale is the ditch rider — the patroller or inspector — for the waterway that is the lifeblood of Norwood, the Gurley Ditch. He is the only employee of Farmer’s Water Development, the stock company that “owns” the Gurley and divides its shares of water. But nobody really owns the water in Colorado, he said, just the rights to use it. According to him, life in Norwood wouldn’t be possible for anyone if the old-timers hadn’t dug the ditch.

In the late 1800s, when pioneers began settling Wrights Mesa, Rockwell said Ed Joseph — of the Joseph family, one of the first to settle the area — began construction of a reservoir east of the Lone Cone in the high country.

Some people disagree as to who later built the Gurley Ditch and finished the reservoir above it. Barrett said it was Naturita Land and Cattle Company. Regardless, whatever company worked on the project went bankrupt. One of the owners in that outfit was named Charles Gorley. Over time, the spelling of “Gorley” evolved into “Gurley,” which is used today.

To avoid losing the rights to use their water, local farmers and ranchers on the mesa decided to purchase the floundering company, buying it out of bankruptcy, and then established Farmer’s Water Development.

Now irrigation water runs from the dam through Beaver Park and to Wrights Mesa, mostly for agricultural purposes, but a small percentage is used for domestic water in town.

Barrett’s great uncle, Gordon Barrett, was one of the first workers to help dig the Gurley.

“They came in 1914, and they worked on the ditch in the fall. If you worked in the fall, you could get shares in the company,” Barrett said. “He was nominated to work on the ditch as part of the family so they could get more water.”

Recently, going through old paperwork, Barrett found one of the original invoices for equipment. He discovered a purchase order, sandwiched between old papers, for picks, boxes of dynamite, shovels and other tools that made the Gurley.

Without the ditch, Barrett said, Norwood would not have survived.


Most people probably don’t know that Ridgway almost didn’t survive. Years ago, in the 1960s, there were plans for a dam to be constructed just north of where Ridgway now sits. Had the original plans been executed, Ridgway would now be under water.

Some refer to it as “the town that refused to die,” and Ridgway lucked out when officials in the 1970s decided to move the dam farther north. Now, the Ridgway Reservoir, constructed in the late ‘80s, covers what was the old ghost town of Dallas.

Though Ridgway is situated on the Uncompahgre River, that stream is not the town’s source of water. Sometimes running yellow or orange, the Uncompahgre is known as a “dirty river” due to the minerals it contains. The town of Ridgway sourced its water in the late 1800s from Hartwell Lake, now Lake Otonowanda, below Mount Sneffels.

Ridgway completed a major expansion of its reservoir last summer.


Today, being on town water is a luxury most people probably don’t think much about. While just 100 years ago we were hauling water and digging ditches through the local mountains, most folks now just turn on the tap. Our pioneers have made it possible for us to have access to water even in places where water didn’t naturally occur.

Those who live further out in the country have other water issues, and real estate in many parts of Colorado becomes complicated when water rights enter the picture. Sometimes water rights are a part of landownership; sometimes they’re not. Water is overseen by water commissions and boards in various regions.

These days, one cannot simply dig a diversion ditch from an existing stream or take water from a manmade ditch. Now, water projects involve planning, permits, engineering work and financing. The Colorado Doctrine, a set of laws pertaining to water use and landownership, has been in place since the 1860s.

Some producers, especially the new farmers without water rights, have trouble wrapping their heads around the laws.

Last July Leila Seraphin, formerly of California, bought a property in Norwood that the Gurley Ditch runs through. She said she wishes she could use some of that water for her own farming and gardening, but she knows it’s against the law.

“We were told right when we moved here water was a big issue and taking from the Gurley was not allowed, and that all the water was owned,” she said.

Building a life as a new producer on Wrights Mesa, she has learned a lot about where her water comes from.

“It’s hard to imagine water being free to use, as every drop has a price tag,” she said.

Barrett said people living in this region should be grateful for their water.

“The water we have — 99 percent of it was done with a shovel and a pick. Without the pioneers, there would be nobody here,” he said.

He believes that is especially true for Wrights Mesa, as he said that before the Gurley ditch, life didn’t exist in Norwood.

“The early homesteaders had to go clear into the San Miguel River or into Naturita Creek with wagons and barrels to haul it to have any water at all,” he said. “I’d say for most people [this] is new information.”

Uncompahgre River Valley looking south
Uncompahgre River Valley looking south