McPhee Reservoir managers are concerned that more sections on the lower Dolores River are becoming eligible for a national Wild and Scenic River status.
Irrigation managers tend to cringe when they hear Wild and Scenic River talk downstream of their neighborhood, and the Dolores Water Conservancy Board is no exception.
That’s because the protectionist designation typically comes with a federally reserved water right that would effect future water rights and could impact the flexibility of using existing water rights upstream.
National Wild and Scenic River status targets pristine, scenic stretches and is the highest level of protection a river can receive from development and de-watering.
Such designations are relatively rare in the Southwest, with only one such river in Colorado — the upper Poudre River — being awarded the designation. New Mexico has four, Utah one and Arizona two.
An act of Congress is required to designate a river as Wild and Scenic.
Before that happens, the U.S. Forest Service and BLM must determine that a particularly pristine stretch of the river is “suitable” for the designation in their land-use plans, which in itself triggers additional monitoring and prohibits some industrial activities.
It is this preliminary status that draws concern from water managers.
“Suitability for Wild and Scenic is cropping up below us and if it becomes an official designation, there could be mandatory federal water requirements,” said Mike Preston, general manager for the DWCD. “We could try legislation to remove suitability status.”
The Lower Dolores River, from the McPhee dam to near Bedrock has been deemed “suitable” for Wild and Scenic since the 1970s, explained Amber Kelley, Dolores River coordinator for San Juan Citizen’s Alliance.
She said it will likely remain that way under a forthcoming BLM Tres Rios Field Office management plan, which controls most of that river section.
Through the Dolores River Dialogue, the DWCD and environmentalists have been trying to negotiate a compromise for the river within the local Tres Rios BLM jurisdiction.
One proposal is establishing part of that stretch as a National Conservation Area, in exchange for dropping W&S suitability status.
But further downstream, local agencies and groups have less influence as the river flows into different counties and on into Utah.
Beyond Slickrock Canyon (near Bedrock) is the Uncompahgre and Grand Junction offices of BLM. Those agencies are considering W&S suitability in draft management plans for remote sections of the Dolores River down to the confluence with the San Miguel and beyond, said Roy Smith, Wild and Scenic river specialist with the Colorado BLM.
The Utah BLM is also listing its section of the Dolores from the state line to the confluence with the Colorado River as suitable for W&S in draft management plans, water officials said.
DWCD board members wondered what would happen if suitability was dropped in the locally managed BLM area, but was still in place further downstream.
“We would have to make sure that suitability (past Bedrock) doesn’t creep up into our proposed NCA (national conservation area),” said DWCD board member Don Schwindt. “There has been suitable status below us since the 1970s and it has never bit us.”
The Grand Junction BLM office lists the survival of native fish species, including the bluehead sucker, flannelmouth sucker and roundtail chub, as a remarkable value for additional protection on the Dolores river.
Preston said that the DWCD will draft a comment letter to the BLM Grand Junction field office to try and deter suitability status and negotiate a compromise.
“It is a question how far upstream a federally reserved water right could potentially reach,” Preston said.