Can the Dolores River be saved?

A beleaguered Colorado waterway garners new attention.


This is an installment of the Landline, a fortnightly newsletter from High Country News about land, water, wildlife, climate and conservation in the Western United States. Sign up to get it in your inbox.

The Dolores River begins high among the San Miguel and Rico ranges, tumbling recklessly past long-defunct hardrock mines and flowing in a south-southwesterly direction to the town of Dolores, Colorado. But rather than continue southward to the San Juan River, following the path of least resistance, it then abruptly veers northward, in defiance of common sense and topography.

It is here that the river’s second stream begins. The lower Dolores River’s murkier, warmer water roars over giant boulders, burbles among serpentine sandstone canyons and paradoxically dissects wide valleys crosswise as it makes its way to the Colorado River. But irrigation and aridification have reduced it to a tepid trickle, and the banks have been thoroughly grazed, mined and otherwise abused for well over a century. Thus, the lower 160-mile stretch has come to earn the melancholy moniker the Spanish friars gave it in the 1700s: El Rio de Nuestra Señora de Dolores, the River of Our Lady of Sorrows.

Yet today the Dolores is receiving an unexpected reprieve from its woes. This winter’s huge mountain snowpack has brought big springtime water to the river — and to area farmers’ ditches — for the first time in years. Bipartisan legislation aimed at preserving what’s left of a segment of the lower Dolores River is now inching its way through Congress. And a new poll shows strong public support for more protections for the watershed, including possibly the creation of a national monument.

But will it be enough to save this battered and beautiful stream?

The headwaters of the Dolores River in Colorado’s San Miguel and Rico ranges.
Whit Richardson/Alamy

IN AN ATTEMPT TO travel the entire lower Dolores River by boat, Southwestern river-running pioneer Otis “Doc” Marston, three human companions and a dog named Ditty set out in a small wooden snub-nosed boat in May 1948. They glided past the Great Cut Dike, where, for a half century by then, the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company had been diverting a hefty portion of the river and sending it southward to irrigate fields around Cortez. That spring, there was still plenty of water left in the river to push Marston’s boat at a swift pace under the barbed wire fences, past the remains of Ancestral Puebloan villages and through dandelion-carpeted ranch fields. But by mid-July, the stream effectively perished at the Dike, the irrigators having pilfered nearly every drop of the stream’s summer flows — an ongoing annual ritual.

Downstream, the boaters found fine sandy beaches on which to make camp. They slept under fat-trunked ponderosa pines, the scent of butterscotch wafting around them, and gazed up at the gorge’s terraced walls — towering 2,000 feet above the riverbed at places — as nighthawks swooped through the lilac-tinted evening sky.

But they also encountered cattle gnawing native grasses down to the nub, crushing the cryptobiotic crusts and ravaging the fragile riparian ecosystem. They saw the river take its revenge when it swept a calf away from its mother as the pair attempted to cross. The five boatmen came across prospect holes, mining detritus and an inactive mill, and noted the ochre-tinted water in tributary creeks. And just as they rounded a bend below Snaggletooth — the river’s gnarliest rapid, named for the boat-munching rock just below its crux — a sharp report, followed by a cloud of dust and smoke, reverberated through the gorge from the canyon rim high above them.

The blast came from a uranium mine, one of dozens that sprang up in the region during the early years of the uranium-prospecting frenzy on the Colorado Plateau. The Dolores River slices through the Uravan Mineral Belt, where, over the ensuing four decades, the mining industry would cut hundreds of miles of prospecting roads through piñon-juniper forests, tear up the earth to get at the uranium and vanadium locked inside it, and dump millions of tons of radioactive mill tailings next to and into the Dolores River and its tributaries.

Yet the river persevered despite its many sorrows. 

Yet the river persevered despite its many sorrows. And in the late 1960s, two competing visions for the watershed emerged. On one side were environmentalists looking to preserve what was left of the watershed by obtaining federal “wild and scenic river” status for the Dolores. That would have prohibited mining and other development along the river’s corridor, while also forcing users to leave enough water in the stream to sustain the native pikeminnow, roundtail chub, bluehead sucker and other native fish that plied the silty waters. On the other side were the irrigators, who wanted to build a dam on the river to capture more of its abundant spring flows, allowing for a larger network of ditches and a longer irrigating season.

The dam proponents had political heft on their side, along with a powerful ally: The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. The tribal nation holds the most senior water rights to the Dolores, dating back to 1868. But since the river is about 40 miles away from the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, it wasn’t able to access any of its water. A dam, reservoir and associated canals could help remedy that. After a brutal, years-long fight, Congress authorized the Dolores Project. Construction on McPhee Dam began in 1979, and the reservoir, located at the big bend where the river changes direction and personality, began filling in 1983. 

The dam didn’t kill the river — not right away, at least. Rather, it was like putting the manic-depressive flows below the dam on a strong dose of lithium. The massive spring runoffs were dampened, but enough water still flowed downstream to scour beaches and preserve Snaggletooth’s whitewater snarl. And for the first time in decades, the lower Dolores carried adequate liquid through the summer to sustain fisheries and a relatively healthy riparian ecosystem that included reintroduced otters.

The lower Dolores River flows near Gateway, Colorado, where irrigation and aridification have reduced the river to a tepid trickle.
Whit Richardson/Alamy

But as a drought, then a megadrought, then climate change-induced aridification set in, the Dolores River began shrinking, depleting McPhee Reservoir along with it. It soon became clear that the river was over-appropriated, meaning that users were trying to wring more water out of the stream than it actually carried. Something had to give, and in this case, it was the river. Unlike on the similarly over-appropriated Colorado River, where water managers are obliged to release a set amount of water from Glen Canyon Dam every year regardless of runoff, McPhee Dam’s operators can cut off releases altogether if need be. And that’s what’s happened more often than not in recent years, with the result that the riverbed below the dam has been deprived of a spring runoff during 13 of the last 23 seasons.

Fish died off, boating became nearly nonexistent, and the dearth of big springtime, beach-scouring water allowed invasive tamarisk and Russian olive to proliferate along the riverbanks.

Irrigators lost out, too, with ditches running dry long before the third or fourth cutting of alfalfa, the most common crop in the region. In 2021, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s farms got only 10% of the usual amount of irrigation water for their corn and alfalfa fields, meaning that the tribe’s crop yields — and revenues — were also down significantly. And 2022 wasn’t a whole lot better.

The river’s overallocation means that during dry years, every acre-foot of water that is released from the dam and into the river is taken away from an irrigator. That hampers conservation efforts by effectively taking a wild and scenic designation, or anything else that would buoy river flows, off the table, because it would violate state water law. But diminishing flows are just one of the threats the river faces: Rising uranium prices have sparked renewed interest in the lower Dolores region, where companies have been snatching up mining claims and conducting exploratory drilling for uranium, as well as for copper and lithium.

So, for over a decade, stakeholders have been trying to figure out a way to protect the watershed without hurting irrigators. That effort culminated last year when Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., introduced legislation that would designate a national conservation area on 60 miles of the Dolores below McPhee Dam. He and a fellow Colorado Democrat, Sen. John Hickenlooper, recently reintroduced the bill. And, in a surprising demonstration of how broad-based support for the bill is, Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Colorado Republican not exactly known for conservation-minded policies, is also backing the legislation by reintroducing an identical House version.

Dolores River advocate Rica Fulton told me last year that the proposed conservation area would help the beleaguered lower Dolores by bringing more attention to its plight and more funding for restoration and invasive species-eradication efforts, along with halting new mining and drilling projects, and mandating a new management plan to mitigate impacts. What it doesn’t do is tinker with flows, something that Fulton called the “elephant in the room.” Plus, it doesn’t include the last 100 miles or so of the river, which is just as imperiled.

By no means are the Bennet and Boebert bills the last word, though. The Colorado Wildlands Project and others are building support for downstream preservation efforts — maybe even a national monument. And mining watchdogs are pushing back on new uranium exploration even as they press mining companies to clean up their decades-old messes. Meanwhile, all that melting snow has made the river a river once again, drawing hundreds of boaters to ply the murky waters. While that brings impacts of its own, it also draws attention to and builds a constituency for the river.

But none of that will matter if the river continues to virtually dry up for several months of the year. Tackling that problem is critical and also extremely difficult, because it requires a rethinking of water rights and the laws behind them as well as the crops the river nourishes. But then again, as Fulton said, You cant have a river without water.”

Hold the Line: Stories from HCN and elsewhere that are worth your time

In July 1938, after more than three weeks on the Colorado River in wooden snub-nosed boats, University of Michigan botanists Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter and four boatmen finally reached the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. Over the following weeks, they would conduct the first Western scientific study of the Grand Canyon. Melissa L. Sevigny chronicles the journey and its findings in her upcoming book, Brave the Wild River: The Untold Story of Two Women Who Mapped the Botany of the Grand Canyon. Her work is beautifully excerpted and illustrated in the latest print edition of High Country News (and it appears online, as well). | High Country News

As long as we’re talking Grand Canyon botany: The federal Bureau of Reclamation recently wrapped up the first “high-flow experiment” in the gorge in five years. The idea is to release large volumes of water from Glen Canyon Dam to mimic pre-dam spring runoff conditions in the Grand Canyon. The simulated floods move sediment downstream to build beaches, create wildlife habitat and help keep invasive plant species in check. They haven’t happened much in recent years because Lake Powell was low and dropping rapidly. But the abundant winter snowpack has provided a nice runoff, swelling rivers to near-flood stage, elevating Lake Powell’s water level by a whopping 10 feet in a few weeks and making the high-flow experiment possible once again. Alex Hager reports for KUNC. | KUNC 

Stephanie Mencimer has a strong piece in Mother Jones about Utah’s “suicide pact” with the fossil fuel industry. Basically, she writes, the state is begging corporations to come and drill for oil and gas and mine for oil shale. That’s in spite of the fact that all of this development, especially oil shale, requires gobs of water — and where would that water come from? The Colorado River system, which, in case you haven’t heard, is slowly drying up thanks to overconsumption and climate change, which, of course, will only be exacerbated when those fossil fuels are extracted and burned. So, why not use up the last few drops to make the situation even worse? | Mother Jones

Tell us (and send photos) about the spring runoff in your area! Are rivers raging and streams flooding? How’s the rafting? We wanna hear from you!

Your news tips, comments, ideas and feedback are appreciated and often shared. Give Jonathan a ring at the Landline, 970-648-4472, or send us an email at [email protected].

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands. 


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