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Bill to protect Dolores River Canyon is introduced in U.S. Senate

Boating is popular on the Lower Dolores River, which is being considered as a National Conservation Area. (Courtesy photo)
68,000 acres proposed for protection from development; potential for wild and scenic river status would be dropped

A long-anticipated conservation bill introduced Friday in Congress would further protect the scenic Dolores River Canyon, famous for its recreational and environmental values.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, both Colorado Democrats, unveiled legislation in the Senate to designate the river canyon below McPhee Dam as a National Conservation Area and Special Management Area.

The Dolores River National Conservation Act would add protections to more than 68,000 acres of federal public lands on the river canyon and tributaries below McPhee Dam in Montezuma, Dolores and San Miguel counties.

The NCA boundary would incorporate a 75-mile stretch of the canyon from below the dam to Big Gypsum Valley.

In exchange for land protections, it would remove that section of the river’s suitability status for a potential designation as a wild and scenic river.

The commissioners of Montezuma, Dolores and San Miguel counties wrote letters of support for the bill, along with the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

It does not yet have a sponsor in the House of Representatives, Bennet’s office said Friday. The next step is to refer the bill to the Energy and Natural Resource Committee for a hearing and review.

A river runs through it

Draft bills on the Dolores River NCA proposal have circulated for years, and the topic has been discussed, studied and debated for nearly two decades.

In September 2021, Bennet invited Coloradans to share suggestions on a revived updated version of the bill during a 45-day comment period.

“For years, I’ve worked with leaders in Southwest Colorado to develop this legislation to protect a portion of the Dolores River Canyon, and I’m delighted to introduce a bill that reflects bipartisan interests across the region to protect landscapes within Dolores, Montezuma, and San Miguel counties,” Bennet said in a news release. “This legislation represents over a decade of collaboration and compromise by a diverse coalition that worked together to find the best way forward for the Dolores River Canyon. Let’s get this done to support public land conservation, agriculture, recreation and local economies in Colorado.”

Desert bighorn sheep are a fairly common site in the Dolores River Canyon. (Courtesy photo)
Boaters float the canyons of the Dolores River under consideration for designation as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)
Kayakers negotiate rapids in Ponderosa Gorge of the Lower Dolores River. Boaters said vegetation has started to bottleneck the river’s original channel and has become dangerous in places. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)

Of the land proposed for additional protection, 53,187 acres would become the Dolores River National Conservation Area, which overlaps mostly Bureau of Land Management land and a portion of the San Juan National Forest. The area includes the popular Ponderosa Gorge whitewater boating stretch.

Another 15,664 acres on the national forest portion of the canyon downstream of McPhee Dam would become a special management area.

The bill is the result of more than a decade of negotiations between conservation groups, water districts, counties, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, agricultural interests, boaters and recreationists.

The Dolores River National Conservation Act bans new mining, new oil and gas leases, dams, new roads and commercial timber harvesting. Valid existing rights and leases for oil and gas and mining would be protected.

Wild and Scenic an issue

In exchange for the landscape protections, that portion of the river’s suitability status for a potential wild and scenic river designation would be permanently dropped.

A possible wild and scenic federal designation has long concerned upstream water managers because it may come with a federally reserved water right that could target upstream McPhee reservoir. The wild and scenic designation also has been seen as a potential avenue from environmentalists to improve flows for three native fish in the river, the, flannelmouth sucker, bluehead sucker and roundtail chub.

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Jul 15, 2013
A proposed alternative to ‘Wild and Scenic’

“By supporting the proposal for an NCA, it is Montezuma County’s intent to ensure that portions of the lower Dolores River that run through Montezuma, Dolores and San Miguel counties will not be designated as wild and scenic, and it is our position that the NCA proposal sets forth an acceptable compromise between the various stakeholders interested in utilizing water and land resources in and along the Dolores River,” the Montezuma County Board of Commissioners stated in a June 7 letter of support.

The commissioners stated wild and scenic “would result in significant consequences for water users and other groups seeking to access natural resources along the river corridor.”

Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart supported the effort.

“The NCA legislation protects our Dolores Project allocations by legislatively resolving the conflicting authorities of the Bureau of Reclamation to manage McPhee Reservoir allocations and Forest Service and BLM authorities below McPhee Reservoir. The legislation also protects Tribal cultural rights and practices in the NCA, and involves the Tribe in collaborative efforts to manage for sensitive native fish below McPhee, another key to protecting our Dolores Project allocations.”

Bill allows uses, limits others

The proposed bill does not come with a new water right or affect private property. It protects all existing water rights and does not affect McPhee Reservoir operations or Ute Mountain Ute water allocations and farm operation. It protects grazing allotments, irrigation structures, recreational access and native fish. It would not affect use of the Dolores River Road that parallels the river. The road would not be improved beyond its primitive condition.

“This bill will protect wildlife, conserve our public lands, and support outdoor recreation in Southwest Colorado while protecting water and agriculture,” said Hickenlooper, a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, in the news release. “For over a decade, communities have worked to protect the Dolores River, and Senator Bennet has transformed their vision into legislation with bipartisan support.”

The bill has support from environmental groups, counties and recreationists along with ranchers who operate within the proposed boundaries.

But the Dolores Water Conservancy District that manages McPhee Reservoir has been critical of the water language and has not fully endorsed the bill.

Rancher Al Heaton, who farms and ranches in Montezuma, Dolores and San Miguel counties, supports the bill.

“I have worked continuously on this proposal since 2008,” Heaton said in the news release. “I believe local participation in the management of the area will provide better benefits for the native fish, scenic area, recreation, permitted federal land uses, private land values and water rights than a wild and scenic designation.”

Amber Clark, executive director of the Dolores River Boating Advocates cited the collaboration and work that went into the bill.

“This bill respects the wisdom of Southwest Colorado’s diverse interests and years of hard-won collaboration to protect this region,” Clark said in the news release. “Farmers, ranchers, boaters, motorized recreationists, water and energy interests, landowners, and conservation organizations all recognize the need to protect the Dolores River Canyon region and have collaborated for more than a decade to align on how best to do it.”

The legislation is “a key piece of the puzzle in connecting important wildlife corridors and protecting the biodiversity in the region,” added Jeff Widen of the Wilderness Society. “We are excited that these lands near the Dolores are getting the attention they deserve.”

Water district critical of bill

A portion of the NCA bill’s water language has drawn scrutiny from Montezuma County and the Dolores Water Conservancy District.

The bill retains a Section 7 regulatory component of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The section restricts large water development projects upstream of the NCA boundaries that “unreasonably diminish” values of the Dolores River.

That could present a legal challenge against larger upstream water projects, such as the proposed Plateau Creek reservoir and pump-back storage hydroelectric project, county officials said. The preliminary concept for the project, estimated to cost more than $1 billion, has not been proposed officially.

The Dolores Water Conservancy District concluded in a review that it did not support the Dolores River NCA legislation, specifically citing the restrictions on water development upstream.

“Unfortunately the draft bill does not, in our view, provide any relief from the current restrictions of Wild and Scenic suitability designation,” stated DWCD President Godwin Oliver in an April 20 letter to Bennet.

“Although DWCD supports the important land use provisions of the draft bill, because the bill would not alter the substantive provisions of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and continues the application of Wild and Scenic Rivers Act Section 7 analysis above McPhee Dam upstream of the proposed conservation area, DWCD cannot fully endorse draft legislation at this time.”

The one component of the Wild and Scenic regulation in the bill affecting upstream large projects was a concern for Montezuma County but not enough to derail the support.

“In negotiations, you don’t get everything you want. By supporting this we get rid of Wild and Scenic and also have a seat at the table for the NCA management plan. That is really important for us to be involved,” said Commissioner Jim Candelaria.

The commissioners noted the “unreasonably diminish” standard has been in place for decades and as part of the current Wild and Scenic suitability status and has not affected any upstream project.

The issue created controversy and spirited debate among previous county commissioners, who dropped out of the negotiations over the water language. As a result, the Montezuma County portion from Bradfield Bridge to the dam was removed from an earlier draft, then put back in when there was renewed support from the county.

If passed, management plans would be created for the NCA and special management areas, and a 13-member advisory council would be formed to develop the plans.

The council would include representatives from all three counties, the Dolores Water Conservancy District, conservation interests, recreation interests, landowners, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, grazing, and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

More information about the bill can be found on Bennet’s website.

Many enthusiastic boaters jump at the chance to run the Lower Dolores River. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)