Fish and Flows on the Dolores River

Approximately 25 avid paddlers, river runners and outfitters gathered Feb. 11 in Mancos, CO to talk about one of the boating community’s favorite waterways: the Dolores River. The meeting was about a proposed plan to improve habitat for rare native fish in the river and protect water supplies for people. It was hosted by the Dolores River Boating Advocates, who brought the boating community together with a group called the Implementation Team—an extension of a stakeholders’ group in the region who hired independent fisheries scientists to evaluate the status of fish and habitat in the Dolores River that flows below McPhee Reservoir. The result was a report called A Way Forward that identifies nine opportunities people can act upon to keep these native fish from dwindling and becoming endangered.

And just what does this have to do with whitewater boating? The answer, in part, is that what’s good for native fish is also often good for boating. And the mission of the Dolores River Boating Advocates takes in both, seeking “to optimize flows, restore the natural environment, and permanently protect the Dolores River for whitewater boating.”

The Implementation Team has presented a plan to prioritize, act on, monitor and evolve management actions based on nine opportunities to help these native species—some of which have inhabited the Colorado River Basin for millions of years and are found nowhere else in the world.

At last night’s meeting, discussion centered mainly on “spill management,” or how much water the Bureau of Reclamation releases out of McPhee Reservoir. Releases of water from the reservoir are an attempt to mimic natural processes that took place before the dam was built—natural processes such as high flows in spring that cleaned silt and mud from pools and riffles, maintained in-stream habitats that native fish need to find food, escape predators and reproduce, and that produced slowly warming water temperatures that “trigger” some species to reproduce.

It was these natural processes, too, that made the Dolores River legendary among river runners before the dam was constructed. Spring run-off, fast rises, great whitewater rafting.

Construction of the reservoir in 1984-85 changed all that, and today minimum water is released from McPhee. Like many rivers in the West, water is over-allocated, managers are not able to do a good job of forecasting snowmelt and timing run-off, agricultural needs are variable, and everyone, it seems, is asking for more water to come out of the Dolores.

The Dolores River is an important tributary of the Colorado River–and it is also one of four Colorado tributaries that the Conservation Lands Foundation, with a mission to protect, restore and expand the Conservation Lands through education, advocacy, and partnerships, is focusing on. The Foundation’s goal is to engage people and local organizations that will result in dedicated, effective constituencies—groups of people who know what’s at stake, have the will, and know what action to take—for the conservation of these rivers and the watersheds that sustain them. The Foundation’s intention is to help land and water advocates coordinate their stewardship, which will in turn maximize community-based work to restore and protect these tributaries—and therefore positively impact the Colorado River.  It’s a tall order, but the communities and people living near these four rivers are poised to succeed.

In the Dolores River watershed, the Implementation Team and others in the region know there is no one action that can solve habitat problems, result in a predictable boating season, and deliver all the water needed to surrounding lands. Rather, the Team is offering a menu of sorts, made up of these nine opportunities that can result in a collaborative and adaptive approach—one that is intended to result in more water in the river. Consensus is a ways off, but the Dolores River Boating Advocates, along with many other groups in the region, will provide input and offer comments to help create the best action plan possible for the Dolores River.


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