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 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.

Cortez plans to install 3,000 smart water meters this summer

Wireless meter reading explained
Wireless meter reading explained

From The Cortez Journal (Jessica Gonzalez):

Funding is in place for the City of Cortez to embark on a $1.2 million replacement of more than 3,000 manually read water meters with automated meters.

Mayor Karen Sheek and City Council approved loan and grant funds from the Colorado Water Conservation Board at the April 14 council meeting.

Through this project, the city intends to replace its current meters with automated meter readers, which use radios to collect data via a drive-by or a fixed-base receiver on every metered account in the city’s system.

The project is being funded through $250,000 in grants from the CWCB and the Department of Local Affairs, $350,000 from the city’s fund balance and $850,000 loan from the CWCB. Once bids are opened in mid-May, there will be a more precise picture of exactly how much the city will need to borrow via loan funding, said Phil Johnson, director of Public Works. It’s likely to be less than the $850,000 total…

The Public Works Department contends that the replacement project will bring the water meter system into the future with more streamlined billing and data management. It also says that it encourages conservation by providing users with more accurate water-consumption information…

After the bid period in mid-May, work is expected to begin early summer. The entire system is expected to be on automatic meters by October…

The Public Works Department will be providing regular updates on the project on the City of Cortez website, he noted, but stressed that it’s a necessary change in a time where water conservation is crucial.

“It’s a step into the future going to help us run our operation more effectively and it’s an efficient tool to help Cortez save water,” he said.

More infrastructure coverage here.

Montezuma County, et al., come out against a National Conservation Area — Lower Dolores River

From the Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

The Montezuma County commission and San Juan Basin Farm Bureau have publicly come out against a fledgling proposal to create a National Conservation Area on the Lower Dolores River.

Citing concerns that the designation could result in additional water being released downstream from McPhee Reservoir, the commissioners voted 3-0 to oppose any such plan…

But others involved said it is too early to take sides because the bill is still in a draft form and has not been released to the public yet.

“I think there is some misunderstanding of the intent of the NCA,” said Al Heaton, also a member of a legislative committee. “Once it’s out, there will be significant time for the public to read the draft and weigh in on it. It’s good to air it out, because there’s room for discussion, clarification and negotiation.”

The Lower Dolores Plan Working Group has been researching legislation for an NCA on the Lower Dolores River below McPhee dam since 2010. A draft is near completion and is expected to be available for review in the coming weeks.

At Monday’s commissioner meeting, Suckla said a draft he saw was “disturbing.” He was critical of the balance of 15 organizations listed in a memorandum of agreement directing the NCA proposal.

“This list is so unfair as far as equal representation for citizens of the county,” he said. “As a commission, our job is to protect property and water rights in Montezuma County, and I only see five entities here that side with that. Where’s the mining interests, the farm bureau, the private landowner interests?”

A compromise

The Lower Dolores Working group, representing various stakeholders, has been studying the environmental and commercial needs of the river below the dam for over a decade.

One conclusion reached was that improving habitat for the native roundtail chub, bluehead sucker, and flannelmouth sucker on the Lower Dolores will help prevent them from being listed by the Endangered Species Act, federal intervention local officials want to avoid.

An NCA in the valley from below McPhee dam to the confluence with the San Miguel River was proposed because the designation is seen as a flexible management tool with more local control in finding negotiated solutions to problems.

As part of the deal, the section of Dolores River that runs through the proposed NCA would be stripped of its “suitability” status for a Wild and Scenic River, a highly protectionist federal designation. If Congress ever approved Wild and Scenic for the Dolores, it would likely come with a federally reserved water right, a situation opposed by local officials.

Proponents say an NCA is a good fit because it balances conservation with commercial uses, eliminates Wild and Scenic potential for that section of river, and offers more local control than, say, a national monument.

“The group reached consensus to pursue an NCA as a way to protect values in a way that doesn’t feel threatening to some stakeholders,” Amber Kelley, Dolores River coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance, said in an earlier interview. “The decision to develop an NCA as an alternative to Wild and Scenic suitability entails a compromise for everyone involved. A grass roots proposal is a far better option than having something imposed from the outside.”

But at the commission meeting some were skeptical of the NCA plan, and urged that the area continue under BLM management.

“I believe there is another way to protect fish without an NCA,” Suckla said.

‘Unintended consequences’

In a letter, the local Farm Bureau outlined its opposition, saying an NCA threatened the region’s water resources managed by the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company and the Dolores Water Conservancy District, which operates McPhee Reservoir.

“The proposal has conflicting requirements with respect to its description of water rights and could set the stage for serious litigation,” according to the letter. “Except for new storage, the only . . . water supply . . . is from either MVIC or DWCD. This legislative path would set up a community fight between MVIC shareholders and DWCD full-service farmers.”

The letter goes on to say that the NCA proposal “does not include a water right” but because of uncertainties in federal and state water law, an NCA may have “unintended consequences driven by political or judicial actions initiated by folks with interests different than our interests.”

“We must ask ourselves, ‘are we supporting actions that may expand the ability of those interests to use the legal process to acquire water we did not intend to be available for acquisition?’”

A crux of the issue is how to improve downstream flows to benefit native fish. State and federal fish biologists have long recommended increasing McPhee’s designated fish pool for release to the Lower Dolores to 36,500 acre-feet from it’s current allocation of 31,800 acre-feet. But where the additional 4,701 acre-feet will come from has been a long-running debate.

Farm Bureau spokesperson Linda Odell said the fear is that an NCA could force the Bureau of Reclamation to acquire the additional 4,701 acre-feet from existing users.

In a statement, Marsha Porter-Norton, a facilitator with the Lower Dolores Plan Working Group, urged the public to be take time to review the proposed legislation.

“This process has always been very open and responsive to concerns that have been brought forward,” she stated. “Everyone involved knows that any successful legislation requires community support. If there are adjustments to the proposal that can be made to ensure a comfort level on the part of water users, I believe the legislative subcommittee, which contains leaders from the water community, is open to discussing those ideas.”

More Dolores River coverage here.

McPhee Reservoir update: “…inflow from the Dolores River is helping us tremendously” — Vern Harrell


From the Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

Recent rains are filling McPhee Reservoir, improving its outlook for next season.The reservoir’s elevation is 4½ feet higher than this time last year, reports Vern Harrell, a Bureau of Reclamation engineer.

“This latest storm produced 1,676 acre-feet of storage,” he said. “Irrigation outflow is pretty much done, and the inflow from the Dolores River is helping us tremendously.”

Carryover storage as of Oct. 1, 2014, is at 34,185 acre-feet, compared with 21,943 acre-feet for the same day last year, an increase of 12,242 acre-feet.

Last year, farmers suffered shortages, receiving just 25 percent of their normal water allocation because of poor snowpack and early hot weather.

This year, farmers from Dove Creek to Towaoc received 90-100 percent of their allocation, and monsoon rains reduced overall irrigation demand.

“It turned out to be a good water year,” Harrell said.

On Sept. 29, the Dolores River hit a record peak of 1,060 cubic feet per second — up from 100 cfs the day before — because of a massive rainfall event in the San Juan Mountains over the weekend. The previous record on that day was 626 cfs in 1927. On Oct. 1, the river at Dolores was flowing at 456 cfs, a boatable level.

Also this fall, significant upgrades to McPhee’s irrigation infrastructure will begin. The Bureau and the Dolores Water Conservancy District secured $4.5 million in funding for the improvements.

Automated pumping stations at Fairview, Pleasant View, Ruin Canyon, Cahone, and Dove Creek are all slated for upgrades, said DWCD engineer Ken Curtis.

The majority of the funding ($4 million) for the upgrades comes from revenues generated at the Glen Canyon hydro-electric power plant. DWCD pitched in $465,000.

“The Colorado Basin Power funds were used to pay for new reservoir projects, but there are no more of those, so now it distributes the money for upgrades and maintenance of existing facilities,” Curtis said.

The Fairview Pumping plant, which feeds off the Dove Creek canal, will receive the first overhaul at a cost of $1.6 million.

“The $500,000 needed for installation came in and construction is slated to begin in November,” Harrell said.

Now that the farming season is over, three variable-speed pumps and their 500-horsepower motors will be replaced, along with electronics and transformers.

The Fairview station delivers irrigation water through underground pipelines to 8,000 acres of farmland southwest of Yellow Jacket…

A wet fall and some carryover storage is a good sign for boaters as well. Officials say the reservoir needs an above-average winter snowpack to fill.

More Dolores River watershed coverage here.

Lower Dolores study details native fish needs — The Dolores Star

From The Dolores Star (Jim Mimiaga):

A conceptual plan for aiding native fish on the Lower Dolores River was approved by the Dolores Water Conservancy District in June. The District has been negotiating with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the BLM, Forest Service, and conservation groups on ways to improve native fish habitat below McPhee Dam. The result is the Lower Dolores River Implementation, Monitoring, and Evaluation Plan, focusing on three native fish: the flannelmouth sucker, bluehead sucker, and roundtail chub.

“The plan provides a more coordinated approach for improving native fish habitat, with a focus on additional monitoring,” said Amber Clark, with the San Juan Citizen’s Alliance.

After McPhee Dam was built, small spills, as well as non-spill years from 2001-2004, began reducing the quality and amount of habitat required to meet the needs of native fish. Spring releases from the dam are later in the season, which has reduced the chance for spawning and survival of native fish.

“Protecting the native fish species locally is important because the healthier they are, the less likely they will be seen by the (U.S. Fish and Wildlife) agency as requiring protective status under the Endangered Species Act,” said Ken Curtis, an engineer with the Dolores Water Conservancy District. “Working to help these species keeps control of our river at a local level.”

The implementation plan presents known and preferred habitat conditions and lifecycles of native fish within six separate stretches of the river below McPhee dam, four of which are a focus of conservation: Dove Creek Pump Station to Pyramid (Reach 3), Pyramid to Big Gypsum Valley (Reach 4), Slickrock Canyon (Reach 5), and Bedrock to San Miguel confluence (Reach 6) Reach 3 (nine miles)

Roundtail Chub are most abundant in Reach 3 and have a relatively stable population there. Mature roundtail are smaller than in other Western Slope rivers, indicating they are adapting to low flows. Fish counts at the Dove Creek area counted 140 roundtail chub, the highest in 13 years.

Bluehead and flannelmouth suckers are present, but in low abundance. In 2013, eight bluehead and one flannelmouth were counted. Habitat is good for bluehead, a more cold tolerant fish.

Reach 4 (38 miles)

Disappointment enters the Dolores in this stretch, flushing sediment into the main channel.

All three native species are found in this stretch as well as problematic non-natives including the black bullhead and smallmouth bass, a voracious predator.

Studies show that populations shift toward non-native species during prolonged low-flow periods. In 2004, native species made up less than 50 percent of the fish caught. After a prolonged spill in 2005, 84 percent of the fish sampled were flannelmouth sucker or roundtail chubs. Because of silt buildup from Disappointment Creek, improving flows here would especially help native fish beat out non-natives.

In August 2013, flooding showed that Reach 4 below Disappointment caused unnatural silting, causing a significant fish kill.

A lack of water limits critical dilution effects, and there is an unnatural buildup of silt because of infrequent flushing flows. “During a flash flood event on Disappointment, the surge of debris-filled water flows into the Dolores River, but there is no water to help dilute the surge of silt-laden water,” said Jim White, a CPW fish biologist.

Monitoring native species at Big Gypsum will remain a priority as it appears that the population may be sensitive to low flow.

Flows are a big factor. In 2005, when there was a managed spill, biologists found 150 flannelmouth per hectare at the Big Gypsum site. While in 2004 when there was no spill, flannelmouth were counted at five fish per hectare.

In April 2013, a PIT-tag array was installed across the river just above the Disappointment Creek confluence. Fish are implanted with grain-size microchips and can be detected when they move. Only a few fish have been tagged in the lower Dolores, but more implants are planned. Data shows native fish move up and down the river. The cost of the PIT-tag array is about $75,000.

Slickrock Canyon (32 miles)

All three native fish species are found,but in low abundance. This canyon is difficult to survey, and can usually be floated if there is a spill from McPhee reservoir. The last survey was in 2007, but more are needed to determine if the stretch has rearing habitats for native fish. A relatively large number of small native fish was found near the mouth of Coyote Wash, suggesting tributaries play an important role for young fish.

Bedrock to the San Miguel River confluence (12 miles)

There are a lot of unknowns. It is highly affected by natural salt loading through the Paradox Valley. The salinity is a barrier for fish between the Dolores River below the San Miguel and Slickrock Canyon. A salinity injection well is operated by the Bureau of Reclamation here to mitigate the problem. Researchers want to ascertain the levels of salinity. A second PIT-tag array is considered near Bedrock to help figure out how fish move .

Spill management

Mimicking a natural hydrograph for native fish is one goal of the implementation plan.

McPhee stores most of the Dolores River spring runoff, and exports much of the storage to the Montezuma Valley of the San Juan River Basin. The result is a lack of spring flushing flows in the Lower Dolores to move sediment and create natural habitat.

When inflow into the reservoir exceeds capacity, the spill benefits boaters and the downstream fishery. However, a prolonged drought has limited spill years. The reservoir holds a fishery pool of 29,824 acre-feet allocated downstream throughout the year by CPW. Spill water doesn’t count against the fishery pool, but it is subject to shortages in dry years.

The report suggests ways to optimize the fish pool and spills for the benefit of native fish.

Thermal regime management sends water downstream earlier, in March and April rather than in May, to keep water cooler and delay the fish spawn until after the whitewater season.

Biologists have documented that when spill water is released in May, the low flows on the lower Dolores have heated up, cueing fish to spawn early.

“The fry and eggs are washed away in the whitewater, a hit on survival,” White said.

A model indicates that flow volumes of 125-200 cfs on May 1 may be necessary to keep water below 15C at the Dove Creek Pumps. More water downstream may keep water cool enough to delay spawning. A gauge at James Ranch will monitor conditions.

Flushing flows range from 400-800 cfs are important to prepare spawning areas and improve oxygenated flow around eggs.

Habitat flows ranging from 2,000 cfs to 3,400 cfs are necessary for resetting channel geometry, scouring pools, creating channels for fish nurseries. The Bureau of Reclamation urges increasing the fish pool to 36,500 acre-feet a year. A fund of $400,000 is earmarked for buying additional water, but none has been acquired using these funds.

“There has always been a desire for more water for the downstream fishery,” says Curtis, of DWCD. “Before there is a blanket grab for additional water, there needs to be a specific focus on how it will help, and those questions are being pursued.”

The goal of the Implementation Plan is to maintain, protect, and enhance the native fish populations in the Dolores River.

The area is susceptible to being overrun by small mouth bass and affords opportunity for their suppression by removing caught fish.

Managed spills scour the river bottom, and move sediment in ways that benefit native fish and their young.

Blueheads are rarely detected in this stretch.

Biologists see the problem as two-fold:

The Snaggletooth Rapid is in this stretch, making fish sampling a challenge, but regular fish monitoring is encouraged in the report.

More Dolores River watershed coverage here and here.

2014 McPhee Reservoir irrigation water allocation set

mcpheereservoiroverlook

From the Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

The Dolores Water Conservancy District, which operates McPhee Reservoir, forecasts full-service users will receive at least 15 inches per allocated acre of the 22 inches of a full contractual amount.

“It is an improvement from our last prediction of 11 inches,” said DWCD general manager Mike Preston. “But we will need additional snowpack in the next 6-10 weeks to fill the reservoir and deliver a full supply.”

Water officials emphasize that the 15 inches is the minimum amount expected to be delivered based on current snowpack levels measured at five different locations in the river basin.

According to a March 7 letter sent to irrigators, “If conditions completely dry out, the worst case works out to 70 percent or 15 inches per allocated acre.”

Late summer monsoon rains that recharged the soil is a major factor for the improved outlook.

Instead of soaking into the ground as it did in Spring 2013 due to a extremely dry 2012, snowmelt this year will reach the reservoir more.

“The improved soil moisture will prevent us from totally cratering like last year,” said Ken Curtis, a DWCD engineer.

Last year, full-service irrigators received just 25 percent of their total allocation, or about 6 inches of water per acre. Instead of three cuttings of alfalfa, most farmers harvested just one.

The latest water news is critical for farmers, who begin ordering fertilizer and seed now for the upcoming growing season. Calculations of how much to plow also depend on estimated water supplies.

“If we get a weather build up, it will just improve from the 15 inches,” Preston said…

If the high country received 4-6 inches of snow each week through April, managers predict the reservoir would reach its full irrigation supply.

On the down side, lower elevation snow is lower than normal. Also, because there is no carryover storage from last year’s dry conditions, McPhee reservoir will end very low and lack carry over storage for a third straight year.

More McPhee Reservoir coverage here.