Dolores River: Balancing streamflow forecast and boating releases from McPhee

Dolores River near Bedrock
Dolores River near Bedrock

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

A sporadic 12-day boating release from McPhee dam into the Dolores River in June was hampered by uncertain runoff forecasts after a late-season snowfall, reservoir managers said at community meeting Tuesday in Dolores.

Boaters faced on-again, off-again announcements of whitewater releases from the dam, which complicated their plans for trips down the river. It was the dam’s first whitewater release since 2011.

A 22-day rafting season was forecast as possible in March when snowpack registered at 130 percent of its median normal. A two-month dry spell erased the advantage, and the release was adjusted to five to 10 days of boating for late May. The forecast then dropped to a three-day release in early June, and after it was confirmed days later, hundreds of boaters flocked to the Dolores as it filled below the dam.

“Small spills are the most difficult and tricky to manage,” said Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District, which manages the reservoir.

But on the fourth day, managers said they realized the volume of river inflow was more than the reservoir could handle, and the dam release was extended nine additional days.

“The second spill was highly under-utilized,” said boater Kent Ford, who added that the lack of notice “killed a lot of multi-day trips.”

Vern Harrell, of the Bureau of Reclamation’s office in Cortez, attributed the uncertainty to the narrow margin of runoff expected to exceed reservoir capacity.

The runoff forecast has a margin of error of 10 percent, “and this year, the spill was within that 10 percent,” Harrell said.

Decisions about dam releases rely on forecasts from the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center, which depends on Snotels that measure snowpack in the Dolores Basin.

When there is possibility for a small spill, managers don’t have the tools to give a lot of notice, Harrell said, so decisions are made day-to-day based on river inflow and reservoir levels.

“By May, all the Snotels are melted out, and we are in the blind,” he said.

In small spill years, managers said they err on the side of caution when announcing the number of days available for boaters. They want to ensure that the reservoir remains full, but they don’t want to end a dam release prematurely.

“We have to be careful we don’t leave boaters stranded on the river,” Harrell said.

Ken Curtis, an engineer with Dolores Water Conservancy District, said the priority is to fill the reservoir, and if there is excess water, it is managed for a boating release.

It was especially difficult to forecast runoff into the reservoir this year, he said, because much of the late-season precipitation came as rainfall.

“In May, we called off the spill because we were not reaching our reservoir elevation,” he said. “Then the forecasters bumped us up by 30,000 acre-feet,” enough for a small spill.

At the end of a five-day release, the forecast center showed a dip in river inflow, “so we started to shut the gates, but the river inflow was hanging in there,” and the spill was extended several days.

Managers acknowledged that they were rusty managing the release. They’d faced many dry winters that hadn’t filled the reservoir, and the unusual winter of 2015-16 complicated the matter.

Sam Carter, president of the Dolores River Boating Advocates, said boaters and the reservoir managers cooperate on potential spills, and this year was a learning experience.

Pollution control systems added to Rico Argentine mine — The Cortez Journal

St Louis Tunnel Ponds June 29, 2010 - view south towards Rico. Photo via the EPA.
St Louis Tunnel Ponds June 29, 2010 – view south towards Rico. Photo via the EPA.

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

The long-closed site is on about 80 acres just north of Rico. Its leaking St. Louis Tunnel and pond treatment system sit beside the Dolores River, which provides agricultural and municipal water for 27,000 people in two downstream counties, several towns and the Ute Mountain Ute reservation.

But unlike Gold King Mine, the Rico Argentine Mine has had significant pollution-control systems in place. And more control systems are planned, said Paul Peronard, the Environmental Protection Agency’s cleanup coordinator at the mine.

“Here, we have a great understanding of the mineworks and have controls and monitoring in place, so we know where the pressure is,” Peronard said during a June 29 tour. “Based on that, the risk is pretty low.”

The mine is being reclaimed by Atlantic Richfield Co. under a 2011 Superfund order from the EPA. The reclamation program has four major components: new relief wells, more advanced water treatment, real-time monitoring, and a new waste disposal site.

How crews work to prevent a blowoutConstruction and drilling have begun on two new relief wells that will help drain the tunnel and prevent a blowout.

Mine and EPA officials estimate there is 1.7 million to 2.2 million gallons of water backed up in the mine. The contaminated water has high concentrations of manganese, zinc, copper, arsenic and cadmium.

The Rico Argentine mine’s workings come together to continuously drain through the collapsed St. Louis tunnel at a base flow of 400-600 gallons per minute, spiking to 1,000 gallons per minute in the spring.

But in the past few years, officials have noticed that the pressure behind the collapsed tunnel has been increasing each spring, which they attribute to silt, which has constricted the flow of the drainage.

Monitoring devices in the mine tunnel give operators real-time data on the elevation of the of backed-up water and the built-up pressure. Currently, the water level in the tunnel is at 8,860 feet elevation from sea level. A level considered dangerous is 8,871 feet.

A siphon in the tunnel has been pulling water out and piping it to the treatment facility. But officials fear that is not enough, so two new horizontal relief wells are being drilled into the tunnel to pump backed-up water to the treatment facility. The new wells and pumps are scheduled to be operational by the end of summer.

“We are currently getting water out of there, but let’s not miss the point of preventing a blowout, so we’re installing big relief wells as a redundant safety factor. If it backs up to a level we don’t want, we can pump it out more efficiently,” Peronard said.

Water-treatment system is scaled upA pilot water-treatment system that uses biological controls is working better than expected and is being scaled up to treat higher volumes of mine drainage year-round.

The Enhanced Wetland Demonstration Treatment System is one of two in the nation and is the only one at such a high elevation.

Water from the mine flows through a series of treatment cells with bio-reactor substrates of sawdust and organic material that use bacteria to break down heavy metals.

The treated mine water then flows through a series of 11 settling ponds before being released into the Dolores River.

“The water treatment plant is designed to handle the variable flows and water temperatures year-round,” Peronard said.

The biological system is preferred over the previous lime treatment system, he said, because the spent substrate matrix only has to be replaced every 5-15 years. It also can operate during winter without on-site management in the avalanche-prone area…

“The water here needs to be treated forever, so we want to make the costs as low as possible to give the plant longevity and not be a huge money pit,” Peronard said.

A double-lined, solid waste disposal site has been built at the site to permanently store mine wastes from the abandoned lime-treatment system as well as the toxic sludge that is removed from settling ponds. The pit can hold 60,000 cubic yards of waste, and can be expanded to store up to 365,000 cubic yards of waste.

Systems monitored in real timeCritical systems are wired to be monitored in real time, and there are live cameras throughout the plant. Mine managers and the EPA are notified remotely about the water level and pressure behind the collapsed tunnel, and on flow rates from the mine into the water treatment facility.

“We get real-time readings that ping us on the conditions,” Peronard said. “It’s an impressive system that continuously tracks and monitors operations.”

If a problem threatens the Dolores River, an automated notification system alerts county and emergency managers, irrigation managers, sheriff departments and irrigators.

And the historic and current monitoring data is, or soon will be, posted on the EPA website.

“If the public wanted to know the elevation of water behind the tunnel, they can look it up,” Peronard said.

New dam considered as a backupAs an additional precaution against a blowout, the EPA and Atlantic Richfield are considering building a dam just beyond the St. Louis adit that would be capable of capturing up to 2.2 million gallons of water backed up inside the mine.

“If you did have a catastrophic blowout, the dam would knock everything down right there,” Peronard said.

The plans for the dam are in place, and the EPA will make the decision by the end of the summer on whether it is necessary.

Atlantic Richfield is paying for “99 percent” of the costs of the mitigation and reclamation project at the mine, the EPA said, but total costs were not reported. Eventually, a long-term operator will be contracted to maintain the system, and oversight will be handed off to the Colorado Department of Health and Environment.

The tour gave area water managers confidence that the old mine is being controlled.

“It gives me peace of mind that the are doing a good job with the treatment of water and are planning for larger flows,” said Randy McGuire, water-plant manager for the downstream town of Dolores.

“The redundancies designed into the system raises my confidence level,” said Todd Parisi, emergency operations coordinator for Dolores County.

For documents on the mine cleanup and treatment facility at the Rico-Argentine mine go to

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