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Update: Bill to protect Dolores River is reintroduced in U.S. Senate

A portion of the Lower Dolores River Canyon is included in a proposed National Conservation Area. (Courtesy photo)
Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper revive National Conservation Area plan; Rep. Lauren Boebert introduces House version

U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper of Colorado have reintroduced legislation that would add protections for the Lower Dolores River Canyon.

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

The bipartisan bill was introduced in the previous 117th Congress in July by Bennet, a Colorado Democrat. In that Congress, a companion bill with the same language was introduced in the U.S. House by U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Colorado Republican, in August.

However, because it was never voted on by the full Congress, by the end of the session the bill died, and now has been reintroduced in the 118th Congress by the Senate, according to Bennet’s press office.

The bill is basically the same with some minor technical changes and “fine tuning” based on agency testimony, Bennet’s press secretary, Rachel Skaar, said Friday.

On March 10, Boebert reintroduced the House companion bill for the Dolores River National Conservation Area and Special Management Area Act to protect water rights and conserve the Dolores River, according to a news release.

Boebert stated the Dolores River legislation “is the gold standard for public lands bills as it protects traditional uses and was written from the ground up by a bipartisan coalition of local stakeholders. So many other public lands bills in Congress trample on the rights and liberties of the American people, but this legislation is good for conservation, good for private property rights, and good for local communities.”

House co-sponsors of Boebert’s Dolores River National Conservation Area and Special Management Area Act include U.S. Reps Ken Buck and Doug Lamborn, Colorado Republicans.

Boebert’s bipartisan bill is identical to the House bill introduced by Colorado U.S. Senators Bennet and Hickenlooper.

“Over millions of years, the Dolores River carved a canyon renowned – not just in our state, but across the country – for its majestic red rock walls that tower over the ponderosa pines,” Bennet stated in a news release. “For the people of Southwest Colorado, the river is more than just a landmark, it's the lifeblood of their communities and way of life.

He continued that the bill was written in Colorado, by Coloradans “who live, work, and depend on the Dolores River. It represents a balanced, sensible way forward to resolve many of the long-standing disagreements, protect the river for all parties, and provide long-term certainty for generations.”

Hickenlooper added that “Southwest Colorado leaders have worked for years to protect and invest in the Dolores River. This bill turns their work into common sense, bipartisan legislation that will pass in a divided Congress.”

The bill calls for a National Conservation Area designation along a 75-mile stretch of the canyon from below the dam to Big Gypsum Valley on Bureau of Land Management land.

An area of the canyon just downstream of the dam on San Juan National Forest land would be designated a special management area.

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

That possibility has always been a concern for water managers of McPhee Reservoir, because if Congress ever officially designated the river as wild a scenic it could come with a federally reserved water right.

The Dolores River National Conservation Act does not include new water rights for the river or affect flows. Bill language emphasizes that the designation does not impact water rights on the river, or restrict traditional uses or public access.

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. Ranching allotments on federal lands within the protected area would not be impacted. Recreation access would remain as it is, including for boating.

Desert bighorn sheep reside in the Dolores River Canyon, and their population has been gradually rising.
Initial runoff predictions look favorable for a whitewater boating season on the lower Dolores River below McPhee Reservoir. (Journal file photo)
Proposed Dolores River National Conservation Area and Special Management Area.

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

“The proposal is the result of a long-standing collaborative effort to protect the Dolores River and the interests of the various stakeholders that it serves, including water users, agricultural entities, local governments, OHV users, conservation groups, and recreationalists,” according to a statement from the Montezuma County Board of County Commissioners. “ln crafting the NCA proposal, Montezuma County, San Miguel County, Dolores County, and other partners sought to address a myriad concerns, including those arising from the finding that the Dolores River is ‘suitable’ for designation under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.”

It is the position of Montezuma County that designating the Dolores River as Wild and Scenic would result in significant consequences for water users and other groups seeking to access natural resources along the river corridor.

“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 commissioners stated.

The bipartisan bill also has support from Boebert, who introduced a companion bill in the U.S. House in July.

The reintroduced Senate bill now goes to the Energy and Natural Resource Committee for another hearing and review.

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.

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.

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McPhee managers seek changes to Dolores River conservation bill
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Montezuma County wants say in National Conservation Area idea

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

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.

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 in a previous interview.

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.

Bill has regional support

Various stakeholders praised the reintroduction of the bill.

“Dolores County has worked diligently on the NCA legislation since its beginning as the Lower Dolores River Working Group. Through the years of collaboration of many varied interest groups we have a working product that shows how a bipartisan group of stakeholders can come together to provide local support and legislative efforts to protect a remarkable and adored landscape,” Dolores County Commissioner Steve Garchar in the news release. “Knowing that the Dolores River with all of its outstanding remarkable values, natural resources and existing uses will be under local legislative control for years to come is a worthwhile feat.”

Al Heaton, of Montezuma County, runs cattle in the proposed NCA.

“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,” he stated. “I have ranching and farming operations in all three counties involved. I hope this can go forward in the bipartisan way we have shown is possible with the diverse local groups that put this proposal together.”

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe expressed support for the bill.

“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/BLM authorities below McPhee Reservoir,” stated Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart. “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.”

San Miguel County has been actively participating for over a decade in stakeholder discussions to determine the best locally driven long-term management for the Dolores River, said San Miguel County Commissioner Hilary Cooper.

“Collaboration with Dolores and Montezuma counties and the Ute Mountain Utes has been one of the most rewarding projects for me as an elected official,” she stated. “The Dolores River NCA is a locally built and broadly supported proposal that protects the natural resources and existing use.”

Environmentalists praised the bill as well.

“A rapidly changing climate highlights the urgent need for better protections for some of our wildest public lands in the state,” said Jeff Widen, of The Wilderness Society in a statement. “The lands in this legislation are a key piece of a broader landscape-scale conservation effort to connect important wildlife corridors and protect the biodiversity in the greater Dolores River canyon country. Years of science-based collaboration helped move these efforts forward and we are excited that these lands near the Dolores are getting the attention they deserve.”

The Dolores River Boating Advocates have lead the effort to designate an NCA for the canyon.

“Senator Bennet has been a longtime champion for protecting the Dolores River and surrounding landscape. We are excited that he has reintroduced the bill,” said DRBA Executive Director Amber Clark. “This bill represents the wisdom of southwest Colorado’s diverse interests and would protect the southern portion of the Dolores River canyon. We support the Senator’s commitment to protecting these important cultural, natural, and recreational resources for generations to come.”

Boebert praised the collaborative effort.

“I thank Senator Bennet, Commissioner Cooper, Chairman Heart, and all the amazing people in Southwest Colorado who put their heart into this effort and played an important role in building this coalition,” she stated in the news release.

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