Forum explores new potential use of Dolores River — The Cortez Journal

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

A documentary screening about the Dolores River was followed by a lively forum about the issue of low flows below McPhee Dam.

“River of Sorrows” was commissioned by the Dolores River Boating Advocates to highlight the plight of the Lower Dolores River.

The new film, which is for sale on the DRBA website for $10, had several showings April 30 at the Sunflower Theatre.

A panel answered questions from a moderator and from the audience. The panel included Josh Munson of the DRBA; Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District; Eric White of the Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch; Mike Japhet, a retired aquatic biologist with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife; and Amber Clark, of the Dolores River Dialogue.

What are the major challenges facing the Dolores River and what are the solutions for addressing those challenges?

Munson said the challenge is for people to see there are beneficial uses to Dolores River water other than just farming, such as for fishery health and boating. Changing the water rights system to allow individuals to sell or lease their water allocation so it stays in the river is one solution.

“Other uses helps to diversify the economy,” he said.

Preston said a major challenge is managing the reservoir in drought conditions. He said the goal is maximizing efficiencies in order to improve carryover in the reservoir year to year.

“High storage lifts all boats, including for recreation,” he said.

White said the film missed the compromises the Ute Mountain Ute tribe has made regarding water rights.

“Our allocation has dropped,” he said. “The tribe has fought for our water rights for a long time.”

Japhet said low flows below the dam are threatening three native fish: the flannelhead sucker, bluehead sucker, and roundtail chub.

“They have been declining precipitously,” he said.

Japhet called for more flexibility in how water reserved for fish and wildlife is managed out of McPhee. For example, 850 acre-feet diverted to the Simon Draw wetlands could be used to augment low flows on the Lower Dolores to help fish.

Clark said the big picture solution need to be collaborative and local, “or somebody from outside will find a solution for us.”

The group revealed the difficulty in finding a compromise that improves the downstream fishery and recreation boating but does not threaten the local agricultural economy.

“Use if or lose it water doctrine is a waste of water resources for farmers and conservationists,” Munson said. “The system does not allow for an individual to lease their water” for instream purposes.

Preston pointed out that in the last eight years, there has been four years where there was a release from the dam. The last one was in 2011, and this year a spill is uncertain.

“We are four for four. When we have excess water we release for boating and the fishery,” he said.
Japhet said the “elephant in the room” is if one of the three native fish species is petitioned for listing on the endangered species list.

“It would cause the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to take a very close look at what is going on with the water and fish resource,” he said. “The best solution is to be proactive and work something out locally to avoid a federal mandate telling us what to do.”

An audience member asked if the river itself has a right to water. Preston said the state instream flow program designates minimum flows for the river, including a 900 cfs below the confluence with the San Miguel. Below the dam the instream flow designation is 78 cfs.

“The river has a right to water, the fact that it was once wild should stay in people’s minds,” Munson replied. “The place itself has a beneficial use for fish, birds, otters. It’s recreation provides a way to make a living.”

Betty Ann Kohlner expressed concerns about McPhee water being used for hydraulic fracturing used for drilling natural gas.

Preston said about 4,000 acre-feet is available in McPhee for municipal and industrial purposes, including for fracking. But, he said, There has been limited use of the water for that purpose.

“If you can lease water to frack, why can’t water be leased for recreation and fish needs downstream from willing owners?” responded one man. “There is a contradiction in how we apply our understanding of how we should use water.”

Don Schwindt, of the DWCD board, pointed out that the Dolores River is part of the Colorado River compact that divides the state’s river water with several downstream states.

“Two thirds of the state’s water is required to leave by compact, and as it leaves it is available in the streams,” he said. “That two-thirds is more dominate than agricultural use.”

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed

Film: The River of Sorrow

I had the pleasure of viewing the new documentary “River of Sorrow” from the Dolores River Boating Associates yesterday at the eTown Hall in Boulder. The Colorado Water Trust hosted the event. River Network President Nicole Silk, CWT Executive Director Amy Beattie, and filmmaker Cody Perry introduced the film by detailing their personal experiences which led them to a life working with water.

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.

Here’s a review from Dennis Webb writing for The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:

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.

stopcollaborateandlistenbusinessblog

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.

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed

Forecast calls for rafting on Dolores River — The Cortez Journal

Dolores River near Bedrock
Dolores River near Bedrock

From the Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

McPhee Reservoir managers announced Friday that the forecast calls for a whitewater release below McPhee Dam.

“The forecast shows a 22-day whitewater season,” said Bureau of Reclamation engineer Vern Harrell. “But it is a 50-50 probability, so it is not guaranteed it will materialize.”

Based on this year’s impressive snowpack in the mountains, runoff forecasts show the reservoir will fill, and there will be 68,000 acre-feet available for a spill into the lower Dolores River.

Here is the plan if the snowpack holds:

On May 17, flows below the dam would be increased to 500 cubic feet per second. It would ramp up to 900 on May 18, then 1,300 cfs on May 19, and 1,500 cfs on May 20.

From May 21-25, the plan is to max out the flows at 2,000 cfs, then they will drop slightly to 1,800 cfs from May 26 to June 1 for the Memorial Day weekend.

On June 2 flows will be reduced to 1,400, cfs, drop 1,000 cfs on June 3, to 800 cfs on June 4 and 5, to 600 cfs on June 6 and 7, to 400 cfs for June 8 and 9, then 200 cfs for June 10 and 11.

Minimal rafting flows is 600-800 cfs, and for kayaks it is 300-400 cfs. Tubing could be done at 200 cfs.The boating community is excited, but cautious, said Josh Munson, vice president of the Dolores River Boating Advocates…

There has not been a whitewater release below the dam since 2011.

The surge of water into the lower canyon will benefit the natural environment, Munson said, and create an economic boon to the area as recreational boaters descend to the various launch sites.

CDPHE tags 105 miles of the Lower Dolores River as impaired

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

Colorado has listed 105 miles of the Dolores River between Slick Rock and the Utah state line as an impaired waterway because of high water temperature from chronic low flows.

The Water Quality Control Commission of the Colorado Department of Health and Environment ruled on the river’s impairment status during a hearing in December.

The section on the Lower Dolores River is “considered impaired because the temperature was greater than standards adopted to protect aquatic life,” said Meghan Trubee, media relations official with the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission. “We’re mostly concerned about the fish and macro invertebrates.”

[…]

“Because the stream is listed as impaired, the division is responsible for developing a plan to address the temperature impairment known as total maximum daily load (TMDL),” Trubee said. “The segment will remain on the 303(d) list until a TMDL is developed and approved by the EPA.”

A year’s worth of temperature data from a water-quality station at Slick Rock showed the river went above the daily maximum temperature standard 10 times – five in September 2013 and five in June 2014.
The separate readings went above daily maximum standard for March to November of 28.6 Celsius, or 83 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Warmer water has less ability to hold dissolved oxygen, which fish need,” said Jim White, a fish biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “The other reason is that higher base flows in the summer would create more habitat for growing invertebrates, the food relied on by native fish.”

The impaired section is below McPhee dam and reservoir and has not had a recreational whitewater release since 2011.

Water allocated for fish habitat, about 31,796 acre-feet, is held in McPhee reservoir and released throughout every year. In the winter, flows below the dam are 20-30 cfs. During summer, they reach 60-80 cfs if there is no whitewater release.

A series of low snowpack years have left the reservoir below full and only able to supply irrigation demands. A whitewater release occurs when there is more runoff than the reservoir can hold.

The Dolores Water Conservancy objected to the lower Dolores impairment listing, but wasn’t successful

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.