An undertaking of unprecedented proportions in Montezuma County, the Dolores Project was built to capture the anemic loss of spring snow melt and store the lifeblood of most communities and farms in Montezuma and Dolores counties.
Although the $500 million project is still being paid off by water users and taxpayers, it forever changed the landscape, lifestyle and economy of the area.
According to information from the Dolores Water Conservancy District, an average of 351,000 acre feet of water flows into the McPhee Reservoir annually. Not including spring spillover, an average of 31,798 acre feet of water is released down the Lower Dolores River.
With a storage capacity of 381,000 acre feet of water, the project essentially doubled the amount of irrigated land in the area and extended the irrigation season for most farmers by nearly three months to mid October allowing farmers to produce substantially more.
With current crop values, Mike Preston, DWCD general manager, estimates Dolores Project lands will generate $20 million in income for the area this year.
The project also provided a combined 8,700 acre feet of drinking and industrial water for the communities of Cortez, Towaoc and Dove Creek. Based on projected population growth, these communities will have enough water for the next 100 years, Preston said.
Most communities would love to have that kind of security, he said.
For residents of Towaoc, it was the first time the community had water piped in to their homes rather than hauled in by truck. The project water also allowed for the development of the Ute Mountain Casino and corridor along the U.S. 491 corridor.
Historically, the project assuaged a long-standing water dispute between the U.S. government and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
The tribe now receives drinking water and irrigation water for the 7,600 acre Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Farm and Ranch Enterprise.
The ability to capture and steadily release the spring torrent of snow melt also provides more manageable releases for fish populations on the lower Dolores River later into the dry summer months, Preston said. This includes sport fish and native species.
After the reservoir fills in the spring, spills can be managed for white water boating on the lower Dolores using the dam.
As part of the project, flat water recreation was also made available, including fishing, boating, water skiing, swimming and camping at the McPhee Recreation area, House Creek Recreation Area, and Bradfield Recreation Site.
Preston said project land was also given to the town of Dolores for Joe Rowell Park and the Dolores Fire Department station.
Hydroelectric generators built at the McPhee dam and on the Towaoc Highline Canal generate 1.35 megawatts and 11.7 megawatts of electricity respectively.
Lastly, the project hastened the archaeological excavation of more than 1,600 prehistoric sites, and built the Anasazi Heritage Center to store the artifacts found.
Users of project water are billed based on the facilities used, Preston said. For example, a Dove Creek water user may be billed for use of the Dove Creek canal and pumping stations, whereas a Montezuma Valley water user may be billed for use of the 1.3 mile long Dolores Tunnel. All users pay a portion of ongoing maintenance and operation of the McPhee Dam.
Individual farmers are billed based on usage.
We take the total cost to operate and maintain water delivery as a whole and we divide it by the number of acre feet that were delivering, Preston said. And that sets a cost per acre foot.
The Dolores Water Conservancy District also levies taxes to pay for the water and to pay back cost of construction to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
One of the things about these Bureau of Reclamation Projects, is they require full repayment of the construction costs, Preston said. The round number is $107 per acre foot per year.
25 years after water delivery began, the project is approximately 50 percent paid off, Preston said.
The Dolores Water Conservancy District spans from the Dove Creek area in the North to the Towaoc area in the South as well as from the Dolores area in the East to near the Utah border in the West.
A plethora of tribal, recreational, agricultural, industrial, municipal and conservational organizations now have an vested interest in water from the Dolores Project.
The other thing the Dolores Project has done is open up communication and cooperation with a lot of diverse interests and constituencies that have an interest in the project, Preston said. You can see how much is involved and how many benefits and uses are connected.
The conversation over how the project water should be used is ongoing and will likely continue well into the future.
Reach Reid Wright at [email protected]