Colorado's top water board agreed Tuesday to improve flows on the Lower Dolores River to boost the health of the river and its native fish.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board will seek an in-stream flow right of up to 900 cubic feet per second on the Lower Dolores below its confluence with the San Miguel River.
In-stream flows are designated by the board to preserve and improve Colorado rivers and lakes. They are a water right within the state's priority system, and when finalized are junior to existing rights on a river, but senior to future water claims.
Environmental groups praised the decision, saying the in-stream flow right will benefit three struggling native fish, riparian habitat and recreation.
"We believe this decision not only protects the beautiful Dolores River, but affirms the use of this vital tool to leave a legacy of healthy rivers throughout Colorado," said Jimbo Buickerood, public lands coordinator at San Juan Citizen's Alliance.
Establishing the in-stream flows will aid the roundtail chub, and flannelmouth and bluehead suckers as well as ward off a listing under the Endangered Species Act, advocates said.
The stretch slated for the largest in-stream flow would is near the Unaweep-Tabeguache Scenic and Historic Byway between Gateway and Uravan, Colo.
Water officials and irrigators in Montezuma and Dolores counties expressed concerns when the plan for new in-stream flows were announced in January.
McPhee Reservoir is upriver from the new flow designation, and some residents feared it could be tapped to fulfill the flows, threatening local water rights and a well-augmentation program.
But in January, the Dolores Water Conservancy District delayed the CWCB decision to allow time to attach stipulations protecting water rights on the upstream users, including McPhee Reservoir and those on the Upper Dolores River.
"We negotiated a protective legal provision with the CWCB and the attorney general that protects Dolores Project water and Dolores River water rights upstream from the confluence with the San Miguel," said Mike Preston, Dolores district general manager.
He said the stipulations ensure the new in-stream water rights, which are junior to upstream users and McPhee storage, will not impinge on local water rights and well programs. The stipulations will be attached to the in-stream flow decree in water court, Preston said.
The Southwestern Water Conservation District board also expressed concerns about the new in-stream flows. They advocated that a portion of it be reserved for future domestic uses along the river, but the plan was denied by the CWCB board because of its speculative nature.
"We felt there ought to be a small amount, one percent of the average flow, or 2.7 cfs, that should be preserved for future development on the river," said Southwestern district board president John Porter. "We lost the argument but got the conversation going on how we manage our rivers to take care of mankind and the natural environment into the future."
The new Dolores in-stream flow must be decreed in state water court, and officials expect it to be a straightforward process.
Minimum in-stream flows are allocated to rivers across the state but are not always met due to limited supplies and drought. However, their legal standing in the priority water-right system helps to guarantee minimum flows into the future.