In the film a farmer in Montezuma County detailed the necessity, from her point of view, for McPhee Reservoir. She acknowledged that she understood the motivation of those that want higher releases from the dam for recreation and the environment and the conflict it causes with the irrigators in the Montezuma Valley.
This is the main message: There are too many straws in the Dolores River, or as one person in the film, says, “Yeah, the Dolores River is very iconic, but it’s really a river no more.”
One of the highlights was the rare film footage of boatmen and enthusiasts from the heyday of boating in the years leading up to first fill. Even after first fill the boating survived until the diversion structures were built and started delivering water from the Dolores Project to the San Juan Basin.
The reservoir filled during a wet time and for a while there was a gold medal trout fishery below the dam. Then dryness hit the region (and is still around).
Now, organizations are attempting to reconcile competing views, learning that water rights are in control, and trying to find recreation and environmental water for the river.
A new documentary film on the Dolores River is to some degree a lament to a river lost, or at least transformed to a degree that it’s hardly recognizable to people with long memories.
“River of Sorrows: Inheriting Today’s Dolores River,” … documents the changes wrought on the river first by the construction of the dam at McPhee Reservoir near the town of Dolores in the 1980s, and then by drought.
While it’s a story about one waterway, it’s one that echoes in river canyons across the West that face challenges similar to the one on the Dolores when it comes to competing demands for scarce water supplies.
“You could say that the Dolores is the canary in the coal mine,” said filmmaker Cody Perry of Rig to Flip, a film production company based in Steamboat Springs. “You could say that the Dolores is potentially the future of every river in the Colorado River Basin in terms of if we have intentions to further develop every drop.”
The Dolores originates in the snowfields of the San Juan Mountains, heads southwest to Dolores and then north along the Colorado border to Gateway before crossing into Utah and its endpoint, the Colorado River.
Perry’s company contracted with the group Dolores River Boating Advocates to tell the river’s story, and particularly describe its life before and after McPhee Reservoir.
The reservoir project provided an important supply of water to agricultural users, as the film shows. But, except for in the wettest of years, it went far in decimating whitewater rafting on what was coming to be considered one of the nation’s best stretches of whitewater, below the reservoir. The river had been growing in renown for its rapids and pristine, slickrock-studded scenery.
For the first five years or so after the dam’s construction, the stretch below it did prove to be a prime trout fishery. But then drought hit, flows dropped below the dam to as little as 20 cubic feet per second, the water warmed and many fish died along the stretch of the river above its confluence with the San Miguel River in Montrose County.
The film quotes Montezuma County Commissioner Larry Don Suckla about the passions boaters, anglers, farmers and others feel regarding the river, and the fact that each group feels threatened.
“But in reality everybody owns that river,” Suckla said.
From the farmers’ perspective, the fear is that they will get less water if more water is released downstream for the fish, he said.
“All the water is already allocated. There is no extra water that is available to send down the river,” Suckla says.
“It’s going to be hard to get this fixed,” he adds later.
The comment succinctly sums up the challenge faced by water managers and the competing interests when it comes to the Dolores, which got its name from the Spanish “El Rio de Nuestra Señora de Dolores,” meaning “The River of Our Lady of Sorrows.”
For whitewater enthusiasts, the film’s high point also is bittersweet. The filmmakers developed contacts with river guides who dug up film footage from the old days of the Dolores when the rapids sometimes raged, including in 1983, the epic spring runoff year when Lake Powell almost overflowed.
Immediately after showing this footage, the film cuts to the lower Dolores today below the dam, barely trickling with water. An unnamed voice provides narration.
“Yeah, the Dolores River is very iconic, but it’s really a river no more. It needs to be seen and supported and it needs to be a river again,” says the voice, which Perry said is that of Andy Hutchinson, a famed Grand Canyon river guide who serves on the board of Dolores River Boating Advocates.
Perry said the archival footage is both thrilling and a reminder of what’s been lost.
“There’s generations of kids who have no idea about this river, and we don’t have that piece of whitewater anymore. It’s a cultural loss, and the generations of people who ran it — there’s a massive gap to today’s river runners who have no idea that was down there,” he said.
He said he’s shown the film to schools, groups of so-called “water buffaloes” and others. He said he was surprised that water managers in particular thought it does a good job of describing the players and issues at hand.
While the film is sympathetic to boating and environmental interests, he said some more extreme environmentalists wish it was edgier. But he feels the film’s job was to educate more than advocate.
“Seven of 10 people in Colorado have never heard about this river, let alone the issues that are specific to it yet also common to other rivers,” he said.
Perry said he’s concerned about the future of agriculture, too. His hope that in the case of the Dolores River, agricultural, recreational and other interests can be willing to show more flexibility in their discussions with each other, and that legal tools can be provided for permanent transfer or long-term leasing of agricultural water for instream flows.
The various interests “need to stop digging in their heels and we have to start meeting each other halfway,” he said.
Go see the film then take in the sights of Four Corners and see the country and the Dolores River for yourself.