U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, a Colorado Democrat, visited Dolores Wednesday to advocate for the Dolores River National Conservation Act.
Hickenlooper met with the Montezuma and Dolores County commissioners for dinner on the patio of the Montezuma Mexican Restaurant along the banks of the river. The meeting was announced and open to the public.
The bill would add land protections to over 68,000 acres along 75 miles of the Lower Dolores River canyon from below McPhee dam to the Little Gypsum Bridge. It would ban new mining, new roads, dams, commercial logging, and new oil and gas leases. Water rights, irrigation, grazing and recreation would be protected.
The area includes the scenic Ponderosa Gorge, red rock canyons and the famed Snaggletooth Rapid. The bill does not include a new water right and does not mandate increased flows for the river below McPhee dam.
In exchange for the added land protections, the section of river’s suitability status for a potential designation as a federal wild and scenic river would be dropped. Wild and scenic rivers typically come with a federally reserved water right, a concern for McPhee Reservoir managers upstream.
During the informal dinner meeting, commissioners, Hickenlooper and his staff talked rivers, politics, and conservation strategies.
Following over 15 years of local collaboration, the Dolores River NCA was drafted and introduced by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet with Hickenlooper as a co-sponsor.
A companion bill with the same language was introduced into the U.S. House by Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Republican from Rifle who supports the legislation.
It also has the support of Montezuma, Dolores, and San Miguel counties, where the NCA designation would be located on BLM and San National Forest land.
Hickenlooper touted the grassroots stakeholder process in drafting the bill and its bipartisan support.
“I love the fact that it is bipartisan, because right now where the world and this country is, we need to show the world that Democracy works, you can’t get everything you want, but you can sit down and figure it out.”
The management plan of an NCA involves an advisory committee made up of astakeholders representing the different uses of the river, county commissioners, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and McPhee reservoir officials.
That local control and buy-in is also critical for land use bills to be successful, Hickenlooper said.
When federal agencies get involved in land designations it becomes a top-down process not palatable to communities where the changes would happen.
“If you had a national monument, then all of the sudden those decisions are not made at a local level,” Hickenlooper said.
Commissioner Kent Lindsay said the county learned a “valuable lesson” in 2000 when Canyons of the Ancients National Monument was created by proclamation from President Bill Clinton.
“We started out with an NCA but ended up with a national monument because of infighting in the community,” he said.
Dolores County Commissioner Floyd Cook said Montezuma County’s coming back on board “pushed us over the top” for the bill to be introduced.
A previous Montezuma Board of Commissioners opposed the proposal citing water development concerns. The county section was removed from the boundaries, then put back in when a new board agreed to support the legislation.
“We overcame all the hurdles and came to an agreement that would work,” Cook said. “We put extra protections on water rights, protected mining and grazing and stopped wild and scenic. We worked together on a joint effort and got local support; otherwise, it would not make sense.”
Hickenlooper was optimistic about the bill’s future.
“Bennet is respected by Democrats and Republicans, and I think we can get the Republicans in the Senate to support it because they believe in local control, and this is a classic example of local control,” Hickenlooper said. “The Dolores Canyon is a beautiful part of the world.”
On his tour, Hickenlooper also visited officials in Montrose, Delta, Norwood, Rico and Durango, said Press Secretary Anthony Rivera-Rodriguez.
In Montrose, the senator toured Mayfly Outdoors and talked about the importance of infrastructure, such as industrial parks, to spur economic development.
He met with the Delta-Montrose Electric Association about tax incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act that benefit the buildout of renewable energy. An 80-megawatt solar farm has gained approval from Montrose County on 470 acres in partnership with the DMEA and Guzman Energy.
In Norwood, he toured a federally health care clinic, one of 20 in the state set up serve rural areas. The clinics must accept all patients.
Under the Inflation Reduction Act, federal health clinics qualify for lower priced pharmaceuticals for patients.
Hickenlooper heard concerns about patients who will lose Medicaid health benefits once the health emergency from the pandemic expires. Medicaid temporarily expanded eligibility standards to assist more of the public.
Health clinics face a financial cliff covering costs of patients no longer eligible for Medicaid, which covers 60% of reimbursements, Rivera-Rodriguez said.
In Rico, Hickenlooper met with local government leaders and citizens regarding the plan to build a centralized sewer system for the commercial district of town.
In response to a request from Rico officials, Hickenlooper included $2.5 million in federal funding as part of an earmark budget item for the project, and it was approved by Congress.
Planning for construction on the central sewer system has begun. The project was touted as a benefit for public health and the environment, as well as for economic development.