U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert and her staff attended the Montezuma County Board of County Commissioners meeting in person Tuesday to hear a report about the idea of a National Conservation Area on the Lower Dolores River.
“It is an honor to be here with you and hear issues that matter most to your area,” Boebert, R-Silt, said. “This is something I wanted to have a voice in to preserve lands in a good way, and keep water in the district.”
In 2015, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, released a draft bill to create a NCA on the Lower Dolores River, but it was never introduced.
The legislation included a wilderness area for Slickrock Canyon, an especially scenic portion of the Dolores River.
An NCA, which needs approval from Congress, is designed to create additional protection for special places while also managing for multiple uses.
A key component of the 2015 bill would have dropped eligibility status for a wild and scenic river designation in exchange for the NCA and the wilderness area protecting Slickrock Canyon.
The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System was created by Congress in 1968 to preserve certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values.
Water officials have long worried that if wild and scenic river were designated, it might include a federal water right that could be drawn from McPhee Reservoir upstream.
But Montezuma County commissioners backed away from supporting the 2015 NCA proposal. They argued it needed more definitive language to protect water rights, and not threaten future water development projects on McPhee, such as the Plateau Creek pump-back storage project.
Ed Millard, a water rights researcher, who represents the county on the Southwest Basins Roundtable, outlined NCA information from the past bill. County officials said they have been informed that Bennet is drafting a new NCA bill.
“We hope to all be involved, and that there will be a process to work through all the issues,” Millard said.
According to Bennet’s communications office, Dolores and San Miguel counties requested his office draft a bill to create the NCA in their counties on the Dolores River.
“Pending conversations with those counties, we hope the draft bill and map of the proposal will be ready for review within the next few months,” said Kate Oehl, Bennet’s Colorado deputy communications manager.
Oehl said the draft bill is being prepared in coordination with Dolores and San Miguel counties, which requested it. When Bennet’s office and the counties agree the draft is ready for review, it will be shared broadly with the public and all interested stakeholders for input and feedback.
Commissioners and McPhee managers said they wanted to review and provide input on draft NCA legislation before it is introduced because it could affect McPhee Reservoir.
Commissioner Jim Candelaria said the commission was committed to “coming back to the negotiating table with Dolores and San Miguel County” on NCA negotiations.
Any NCA bill would have to be carefully worded to avoid potential conflicts with McPhee Reservoir, said Ken Curtis, general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District.
“An NCA may be better than wild and scenic river,” he said, “but that is not for sure. We need to get the right language,” or leave it under the current management status.
Boebert said she was willing to assist the county on NCA legislation that comes forward for the Dolores River.
“I have options for improving the bill or getting rid of provisions that are non-starters,” she said.