A proposal to create national conservation and wilderness areas on the Lower Dolores River received assistance from U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Denver), and will be reviewed by David Robbins, a prominent state water attorney.
Bennet's staff confirmed that they helped to draft a bill that proposes additional conservation measures and water-rights protections on 108 miles of the river canyon from below McPhee Dam to Bedrock.
"At the request of the local committee of community leadership, we helped them see what the proposal they agreed to would look like in legislative language," said Erin McCann, deputy press secretary for Bennet.
The draft bill was released in April by a legislative subcommittee of the Lower Dolores Plan Working Group after a five-year process of research and community meetings.
It proposes the creation of the Dolores River National Conservation Area from Bradfield Bridge to Bedrock.
It also would designate a 47-square-mile area encompassing Slick Rock Canyon as the Dolores Canyon Wilderness Area. The wilderness area boundary would stop at the river's high-water mark on both banks.
Authors of the bill say it is intended as a discussion tool on ways to further protect the spectacular river valley while preserving water rights and agriculture. The bill has not been introduced in Congress, and doesn't have a sponsor.
Bennet said that if there is widespread support, he is open to sponsoring the bill or a version of it, and that he has experience with the complexities of public lands legislation.
For example, he sponsored the Hermosa Creek Water Protection Act, north of Durango, which was passed this year. The collaborative effort protects natural resources and water rights, and had local and bipartisan support, including from U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez.
"We will be happy to support and introduce draft legislation to create a National Conservation Area if that is desired by the community," Bennet said in a statement. "Just as with the successful Hermosa Creek agreement, the best way forward will be to work together to find a commonsense solution that everyone can agree on and addresses concerns about water supply protections."
Bennet's office said the draft bill itself is a product of the community's collaboration.
"A bill that would actually be introduced by the senator would be subject to further revision and changes based on local input," McCann said.
Local water providers, along with Dolores, San Miguel and Montrose counties, have agreed to hire water attorney Dave Robbins for $15,000 to conduct a legal review of the bill, with a focus on how various federal designations could impact local water rights.
Robbins is a Colorado water attorney with 43 years experience at state and federal levels. He negotiated legislative settlements protecting agricultural water in the San Luis Valley and in the Rio Grande River.
"There is wide agreement that a third-party legal review was needed that compares and contrasts how various designations may or may not impact our water rights," said Mike Preston, a manager for McPhee Reservoir. "Once the legal review is complete, an open community meeting will be held to discuss the results."
Federal actions downstream of the reservoir worry local water officials, because they may come with reserved water rights that look to tap upstream supplies.
For example, the Lower Dolores River is suitable for National Wild and Scenic River designation, if Congress approves it.
As a compromise, the draft bill proposes to drop the suitability status in exchange for NCA and wilderness areas that prohibit new dams, mining, and major industrial development.
Also, native fish on the river's lower stretches could one day be listed under the Endangered Species Act, triggering federal action possibly involving more flows.
Or President Barack Obama could designate the Lower Dolores River canyon as a new National Monument.
"A legal review can tell us what we are doing wrong, what we're doing right, or if we should even do anything," said Dolores County Commissioner Ernie Williams. "I believe some kind of action is needed to protect Dolores and Montezuma County water."