A recently released draft bill would ask Congress to designate portions of the Lower Dolores River as a National Conservation Area and Wilderness Area.
The much-anticipated proposed legislation was created over a five-year period by a legislative subcommittee put together by the Lower Dolores Plan Working Group.
It was released to the public last week for community discussion and input. It hasn’t been introduced to Congress, and doesn’t have an official sponsor in the House or Senate.
“The draft bill was formed through a credible and lengthy process by a diverse group of stakeholders,” said Marcia Porter-Norton, a facilitator for the working group. “This discussion version is meant to stimulate community input and be reviewed by key governing boards. NCA legislation requires local support and buy-in to be successful.”
The proposed Dolores River National Conservation Area would stretch from below the dam at Bradfield Bridge to Bedrock, Colo., and include the river and public land on both sides.
The intent of the NCA legislation is to create a community-based management tool that improves protection of water rights on the Dolores River and McPhee Reservoir, while preserving the ecological values of the lower river canyons, according to supporters.
Its exact boundaries are being worked out, but the proposed NCA will include the lower Dolores River Canyon, from rim to rim, on BLM land within Dolores, San Miguel and Montrose counties.
The draft bill also proposes to designate the Dolores Canyon Wilderness Area, a 30,119-acre swath of remote canyonlands that has been managed as a BLM wilderness study area for decades.
The 47-square mile Wilderness Area would overlap the NCA south of Bedrock in Montrose County and be the same area as the WSA.
According to the draft, the Wilderness Area boundary would be located at the edge of the river, and no portion of the Dolores River will be included in it.
However, the Dolores river will be part of the NCA, including where it runs through the wilderness area.
The proposed Dolores Canyon Wilderness Area is dominated by the scenic Slick Rock Canyon, a twisting, red-rock gorge popular for whitewater boating when there is a dam release from McPhee Reservoir.
The draft legislation for the NCA and Wilderness proposals protect private property rights, public roads, irrigation uses, water rights, native fish habitat, and recreational boating uses. Valid existing rights for mining and grazing allotments are also protected within both proposals.
The NCA and Wilderness designations would prohibit new mining and construction of dams, except for small irrigation facilities and stock ponds. Large-scale commercial logging would not be allowed, but timber management for ecological purposes and fire mitigation could take place.
In exchange for the conservation and wilderness designation, the bill seeks to drop the Dolores River’s current “suitability” status for a National Wild and Scenic River (NWSR) on 108 miles from McPhee dam to Bedrock.
If ever approved by Congress or the Secretary of Interior, a NWSR could include a federally reserved water right, which might force increased dam releases from McPhee Reservoir.
The bill works to improve native fish populations in order to avoid listing by the Endangered Species Act, and the legislation is also seen as a way to avoid a possible national monument designation for the Lower Dolores River by President Barack Obama.
“A national monument could be created by the stroke of a presidential pen,” said Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District, and member of the legislative subcommittee. “Introducing an NCA created through a collaborative grass-roots process and Congressional support pre-empts a national monument. Releasing wild and scenic suitability stabilizes our water-rights protections.”
Community presentations of the bill are being planned. A copy of the draft bill can be picked up at the Dolores Water Conservancy District office at 60 S. Cactus St. in Cortez.