A new bipartisan conservation bill that proposes additional protections for the Lower Dolores River Valley just moved another step forward.
U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Colorado Republican, has introduced a companion bill in the U.S. House for the Dolores River National Conservation Area and Special Management Act.
“This locally driven, bipartisan bill is a public lands compromise put forth by local stakeholders that threads the needle,” Boebert said in a news release. “H.R. 8601 protects the Dolores River corridor, conserves wildlife, ensures scenic public lands for future generations, while still protecting private water and private property rights.”
Boebert’s chief of staff, Jeff Small, said Boebert’s first conservation bill exactly matches the Senate version introduced July 15 by U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, both Colorado Democrats.
“It is identical with no changes out of respect for the ground-up local process that led to bipartisan support and compromise from all the counties and stakeholders,” he said.
The bill now moves to natural resource committees in the House and Senate for review before being passed on for a vote on by the full Congress.
The act would add protections to more than 68,000 acres of federal public land along a 75-mile stretch of the river canyon below McPhee Dam in Montezuma, Dolores and San Miguel counties.
The area includes the Ponderosa Gorge, which features old-growth forests along a popular 18-mile wilderness rafting trip where bears, desert bighorn sheep and river otters commonly are seen.
In exchange for land protections, it would permanently remove that section of the river’s suitability status for a potential designation as a national wild and scenic river. That potential has been a concern for managers of upstream McPhee Reservoir because it could come with a federally reserved water right.
Boebert touted the support of the region’s counties and the removal of a potential new federal water right.
“This well-crafted legislation ensures traditional uses like grazing, uranium mining and other mineral extraction, and motorized-vehicle use will continue,” state Boebert, who represents the 3rd Congressional District. “Importantly, this bill prevents a wild and scenic river designation in perpetuity, something that would negatively impact all the aforementioned uses. The hard work of everyone who came to the table to make this happen should be applauded.”
The bill is supported by Republican county commissioners in Montezuma and Dolores counties, and by Democrat commissioners in San Miguel County.
It also is supported by the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe of Towaoc, environmental groups and boaters. It is co-sponsored by Reps. Ken Buck and Doug Lamborn, Colorado Republicans who represent the 4th and 5th congressional districts, respectively.
The bill prohibits new mining and oil and gas permits, but protects existing rights and leases of those uses. It also bans new large dams, new roads and commercial logging.
It does not include a new water right, and does not impact river flows, irrigation infrastructure, recreation, grazing, motorized use, private property, private water rights or McPhee Reservoir operations.
Part of the bill has faced some criticism from the Dolores Water Conservancy District, which manages McPhee Reservoir.
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 “fully endorse” the Dolores River NCA legislation and cited 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 Boebert and Montezuma County but not enough to derail support.
Boebert left the language in to show “respect for the ground up local stakeholder process” that crafted the compromise, Small told The Journal.
Removing the chance that the “federal government could take our water rights” got Boebert’s attention, Small said.
Montezuma County Commissioner Jim Candelaria also supported the bill.
“In negotiations, you don’t get everything you want,” he said. “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.”
The commissioners noted the “unreasonably diminish” standard has been in place for five decades and has not affected any upstream project.
The bill will create an 11-person Dolores River National Conservation Area Advisory Council to advise the Secretary of the Interior on the management plan.
The council would include representatives from Montezuma, Dolores and San Miguel counties, the Dolores Water Conservancy District, conservation interests, recreation interests, landowners, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, grazing and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
Supporters of the Dolores River National Conservation Area and Special Management Area Act include San Miguel County, Dolores County, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Montezuma County, Dolores River Boating Advocates, The Wilderness Society, American Rivers, Conservation Lands Foundation, American Whitewater, San Juan Citizens Alliance, Conservation Colorado, and Sheep Mountain Alliance.