One Last Chance to Float the Dolores River?

19 Jul

The Dolores River starts in the high, ancient ponderosa forests on the southwestern edge of the San Juan Mountains before making its way to the desert, cutting through 250 million years of geology, en route to its meets up with the Colorado River. It has one of the longest continuous raftable sections in the country, winding through one of the most beautiful, diverse canyons in the Southwest.

But it almost never runs.  

Aside from a small section set aside for fish habitat, nearly all the water in the river is allocated for agriculture. McPhee Dam, about 60 miles northwest of the Four Corners, holds the river’s water in the second-largest reservoir in Colorado. Its availability is mostly dependent on snowmelt, and it only spills enough for people to float in it every three to five years, after irrigation needs have been met. Since 2000, the river has run at 1,200 cubic feet per second (cfs)—the recommended level for floating—or more for only 131 days. 

This was one of those good years. Snowpack in the river basin was at 302 percent of its normal level in late May, and authorities planned to open the dam and release 1,200 cfs near the end of the month. I was at home in Seattle when my friend Brad called on Tuesday, two days ahead of the planned release, to invite me on a trip down the river. “We put in on Friday, and you should come. You can just meet us at the put-in.”

I was a 19-hour drive away, but I’d been mythologizing those infrequent releases in in my head. I told him I’d be there.

I rolled into the Bradfield Bridge parking lot, downstream from McPhee, after midnight on Friday. In the morning, five of us pulled up to the ramp and started yanking boats off the trailer. 

river
(Heather Hansman)

We pushed off into the swollen channel, which was choked with coyote willows that grow thick when the river doesn’t run. Brad rowed one boat. Matt, another friend who’d been down for the last release two years ago, was at the oars of another, scouting for familiar landmarks.

The river was filled with groups ahead of us, commercial trips that had dusted off barely used permits. There were two boats of people in their eighties from Oregon who planned to float all the way to Moab, Utah, ten days downstream, because they might never have the chance to do it again.

The Dolores’s rare flows are the result of a complicated mesh of storage capacity, water rights, and a variable climate. The people who depend on the river are searching for a way to meet the needs of agriculture, conservation, and recreation while accounting for those factors. It’s a marker for the future in a hotter, drier Southwest. 


The Dolores has been used for farming since 1889. Irrigation became its primary purpose once the McPhee project was completed in 2000. 

The active capacity for McPhee Reservoir is 229,000 acre-feet. The average inflow—the water that runs into the reservoir from snowmelt—is 327,000 acre-feet, of which 278,000 is allocated for agriculture. That means McPhee is essentially only big enough to serve agricultural rights. Because it’s entirely dependent on inflow, it doesn’t have space to hold extra water, so even in wet years, authorities can’t bank any for recreation or research. The reservoir can only spill the extra water for recreational flows if there’s enough precipitation.

“The [Dolores Water Conservancy] District’s whole mission is to end the season with the reservoir at the tippy tippy top,” says Jimbo Buickerood, lands and forest protection program manager of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, an environmental advocacy group focused on the San Juan Basin. He first paddled the river in 1973. “It didn’t end up full in 2018, and their board members freaked out.” For the water district, which manages the dam, a full reservoir is a safety measure and a way to make sure all the legal needs are met, but it means there’s minimal flexibility for ecological and recreational flows, especially because the basin has been in drought for the past 20 years, Buickerood says.

That’s particularly scary in years like 2018. The Dolores didn’t run at all last year, leaving people in the region haunted by the ghost of skimpy snowfall, the fear of threatened shortages, and not enough water to go around.

“Our eyes were twitching because it was so freaky,” says Sam Carter, the program and outreach coordinator for Dolores River Boating Advocates. “And now, this year, there’s enough water to fill a reservoir that was at historic lows.” Carter, who sits on the spill committee that helps decide how much water to release and when, says this year caught them off guard, and that they’re still nervous about last year’s drought. They’re constantly at the mercy of the snowpack.

river
(Heather Hansman)

As we floated downstream, red Wingate sandstone morphed into tan slabs of Navajo sandstone, Triassic ceding to Jurassic. Beavers popped their heads up in the eddies, and one night we set up the groover toilet next to fresh bear prints. 

The campsites and banks were overgrown with plants like invasive tamarisk, which grows in shallow salty soil, because no one paddled through last season. That made it easy to picture what it looks like when it’s dry and the flood regime that supports native plans doesn’t happen. You can see the human impact of a river channel with no water in it. I wonder where the otters and beavers go when there’s only 40 cfs, the minimum fish flow, pulling through the channel. Buickerood says they’ve discovered that cottonwood can’t regenerate when the flows are low, and willows take over, armoring the banks.

The pinnacle of paddling on the Dolores is a rapid called Snaggletooth, a long, complicated series of moves where plenty could go wrong. It has a course of screw-you rocks at the top, then a narrow slide into a fast tongue of water between a huge hole and a ledgy pour-over. Below that, all the water pushes toward two hooked fangs of red rock, the teeth that give the rapid its name. We scouted for a while, watching other boats run through, trying to memorize the line, picking out plan A and plan B in case we flipped or got stuck in the hole or surfed sideways in the pour-over. One of the boats of older folks heading to Moab pinned on a pancake rock while we looked on.

On shore, Matt told us it boated easier than it looked, which was a small consolation as we floated toward the horizon line and the river picked up speed. Brad was on the oars. We came in river right, skated over the rocks, and caught the current, slicing the edge of the hole, just sucking back for a second. Then we were free, and he was pushing downstream, toward the left bank, away from the toothy rocks, when I remembered to breathe again. 

Scenery, Snaggletooth, and solitude all coalesce to make the Dolores a prime destination for rafting, but ecological integrity is part of the puzzle, too. The two are linked, and Buickerood says that, in the face of drought, pressure to maintain the ecosystem might be the most powerful tool to keep water in the river for paddlers when inflows are reduced. 

To try to account for that, and balance water rights with wildness, there have been a series of moves aimed at protecting the corridor. They range from a Wild and Scenic recommendation in 1968, after the dam was approved, to a more recent proposal to become a national conservation area, which Carter says would only protect the landscape, not the water, because flows are still beholden to the irrigation water rights, even if the land is protected.

This year, even though the snowpack was high, runoff was slow, thanks to a cold spring. The spill committee was cautious about when to release water. Buickerood says a lot of those decisions have historically happened out of fear.

river
(Heather Hansman)

The Dolores River Dialogue, a stakeholder group started in the early 2000s, is trying to get more flows for fish and more flexibility. It sets recommendations for how to use excess water (when there is any), and Carter says it brings in all of the river’s constituents, from irrigators to stream ecologists, to try and figure out how to use the river for the most purposes. Endangered fish are a big lever, as is the desire to maintain and manage the river corridor, all of which take water. 

This year’s levels were abnormally high. By the time we got off the river, three days later, snowpack was at more than 1,000 percent of the average. That’s what climate change is—inconsistencies in the systems we depend on. The future of the Dolores is a complex question: How do we plan for a variable future and avoid one where decreased flows potentially pit agriculture against environmental concerns or recreation?

“My answer to that question is building relationships. The biggest piece is communication,” Carter says.

As the Southwest dries out—and nearly everyone predicts that it will—I don’t want river trips to be freak pilgrimages that feel like last glances at a fragile, fading slice of a natural system we used to know. I’m glad I came, I’m glad I saw it, but I don’t want this swollen water year to be the last time I do.

We Might Lose One of the West’s Last Wild Rivers

16 Apr

In a dry corner of the country, the Gila River corridor is lush and green. There are ancient, 20-foot-wide cottonwoods along the banks and rare Gila Trout in the riffles. The river’s source is the Gila Wilderness, the first wilderness area in the U.S.—set aside in 1924 because of a push from Aldo Leopold, who saw the value of an unbroken, untouched landscape and recognized the Gila’s biological and topographic diversity.

Where the Gila spills out of the wilderness and into the Cliff-Gila valley, it irrigates a range of food crops. Upstream, it’s home to one of the highest concentrations of breeding birds in the country, including the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, and it supports one of the last remaining intact native fish communities. There is tricky, ephemeral paddling in the upper reaches, called the Gila Wilderness Runand farther downstream, you can float the less technical, but still beautiful Gila Box. That combination of rare factors reflects the fact that the Gila is one of the few undammed western rivers and the last major free flowing river in New Mexico, which means ecological processes, flows, habitat, and more are as undisturbed as they can be in a heavily human-influenced world.

Whatever part of water use you might think is most important—from farms to fish to floating—the Gila is a stronghold, but right now its tenability as a habitat and a water source is threatened by nature and by humans. This year is a tipping point.

On April 16, American Rivers announced their annual most endangered rivers list, a yearly marker for the health of rivers, and in 2019, the Gila was number one. Scientists estimate that, due to climate change, the snowpack that feeds the Gila will be gone by mid-century and flows will shrink by up to 10 percent over the same period. Global warming is wringing the river dry, and a proposed major diversion project that could pull 14,000 acre feet—about the equivalent of the yearly water use for 30,000 households—out of the river each year, stressing it even further.

“It’s a river that’s ground zero for climate, and if the diversion were put in place it would seriously disrupt things,” says Sinjin Eberle, American Rivers’ Communications Director for the Intermountain West. He says that the diversion project could cost hundreds of millions of dollars and yield little to no water due to low flows on the river and climate change.

There have been a series of planned and failed diversion plans on the Gila since the 1960s, says Allyson Siwik, the director of the Gila Conservation Coalition, but this one had been threatening the river for a decade and a half. The impetus dates back to 2004, when Congress passed the Arizona Water Settlements Act. In the settlement, New Mexico received access to 14,000 acre-feet of river water and $66 million of federal money to spend on water projects.

The diversion plan, which would use those funds and would pull water out of the river right at the head of the valley where it leaves the wilderness, is shepherded by the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, a 15-member group from counties, municipalities, irrigation districts, soil and water conservation districts in the area, and New Mexico's Interstate Stream Commission. They largely represent agriculture interests and see the diversion as a way to secure water for their constituents in four counties along the border with Arizona. But they appear to be operating out of future fear instead of direct need. So far, they’ve spent $17 million and haven’t even produced an Environmental Impact Statement for the project. Laura Paskus from the New Mexico Political Report found that, “supporters of the project have not yet identified users or buyers for the water,” and that water from the project would cost $450 per acre foot, almost tripling its current rate.

Still, those groups have major political clout. Diversions are a popular, long-standing way to shore up water rights, and it’s not hard to understand the fear because it’s baked into water policy and the reality of living and growing food in a dry land.

“Historically, if you have the opportunity, you never say no to water, regardless of the cost,” Siwik says. But, she adds, there are a series of other projects that are also eligible for the Arizona Water Settlement Act funds that wouldn’t divert the river, and which will hopefully allocate the state’s water more efficiently. They range from municipal water conservation, to effluent reuse for fields, to watershed restoration—all of which save water.

This year is a telltale one for the Gila’s future because a record of decision, a formal decision spelled out for public record, on the diversion process is due in December 2019, and if the NM CAP Entity doesn’t produce one, they lose access to funding. The Interior Secretary could extend the deadline, but the Entity would have to show that they weren’t responsible for the delays. And as that process goes on, the political climate could be shifting.

In her state water plan, newly-elected New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham pledged to end work on the Gila River Diversion Project. “I will take whatever steps are available to withdraw the proposal for the diversion project and ask the ISC to explore alternatives to diversion with local governments and stakeholders and develop appropriate plans,” the plan read. “I also will work with our Congressional delegation to ensure that the Gila River is protected by federal law.” In early April, she line vetoed $1.7 million of state funding for the diversion.

Her statement is a reflection of how the powers that have managed water in the past, like state government, are changing their attitude about water projects, and why they need to.

This year’s endangered rivers list has a heavy emphasis on how climate will change water sources—the Hudson’s sensitivity to storm surges, for instance, and threatened salmon runs in the Northwest—and how collaboration and conservation through multiple use are becoming crucial. “Hard decisions are being made about how do we want to treat our rivers going forward?" Eberle says. "How do we build in resilience?” 

The Gila’s fragile wildness is important on its own merit, but it’s also a bellwether for the future of rivers. If the diversion goes through, we stand to lose the resilience of last wild river in an increasingly hot and dry state. But if the diversion fails, it’s a signal for the way we might think about managing and using drought-prone waterways in the future, when there simply won’t be enough water to go around.