Throughout the storied life cycle of McPhee Reservoir, the stoic presence of Vern Harrell of the Bureau of Reclamation has been there, watching over the lifeblood of the Southwest Colorado agricultural community.
He started on the construction team of the reservoir in 1982 and saw the first loads of clay placed into the dam. He was a witness as the cool water of the Dolores River filled the reservoir.
During his 35 years with the agency’s Cortez office, he wrote and oversaw water contracts for hydropower, water companies, the Ute Mountain Tribe Farm and Ranch, and the canals and pump stations that redirect the water to nearly 63,000 acres of commercial farm land in Montezuma and Dolores counties.
For decades, he kept an eye on snowpack and runoff that feed the lake, and ensured that reservoir water contract obligations were met. He respected the balance dividing the 380,000 acre-foot reservoir between agriculture, municipal, the downstream native fishery and recreational boaters.
In all, the career government man was relied on to get the job done, and now at 58, he’s heading into the sunset, downshifting to spend time with his wife, family, herd of cattle and apple orchard.
“It is pretty rare for a Reclamation employee to work on one project for an entire career, so it has been a real blessing,” he said as he cleaned out his office on Cactus Street in Cortez.
As a federal administrator for the $800 million Dolores Project, he was a liaison between Reclamation and the Dolores Water Conservancy District, which was transferred the management of the reservoir infrastructure, but ownership stays with the U.S.
He said besides the accomplishments of the project’s construction, his proudest achievements are the partnerships forged between various users: the farmers, Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co., boaters, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, San Juan National Forest and environmental interests.
“The way we work to bring people together with different viewpoints, and that we are able to talk rationally about difficult issues, stands out for me,” he said. “Twenty years ago, it was more of a food fight, and nothing got accomplished.”
Harrell endured heavy pressure, misdirected anger from the boating community, which was convinced that dam managers were arbitrarily releasing water or not.
“The dam was a big change, and as they came to understand the project and its legal water obligations that must be met, then we could talk,” he said. “I see the downstream fishery and boating as just as important as the agriculture, and all of that is laid out in the project requirements.”
Today, boating groups and environmentalists work closely with reservoir managers when there is a spill, he said, and the releases are more catered toward boating and ecological needs.
Seeing the Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch flourish was also a highlight of his career.
“I’m really proud of the tribe and what they were able to do with their project water. It’s a state-of-the-art farm that takes a back seat to no one. It makes a profit, and employees a lot of tribal members.”
He said the misconceptions by boaters and farmers about the Dolores Project still linger.
“There would not have been a dam and reservoir without the negotiations to have water for the downstream fishery and managed, recreational whitewater releases. On the other hand, the purpose is to store water if we can store it,” he said.
Going forward, Harrell said the reservoir infrastructure is in good shape. Twenty-five-year-old pumping stations have been replaced or upgraded in the past several years.
New computer systems control water delivery, powerlines have been replaced, and every aspect of the system is monitored and inspected.
The next captain of the Reclamation office will face some new challenges. Harrell said the clay lined canals are beginning to leak and will require upgrades. The concrete spillway of the dam needs repair because of weathering and freeze-thaw impacts.
He credits DWCD for its proactive budgeting and maintenance of project infrastructure for the reservoir’s success and longevity into the future.
“The system is in excellent condition. These guys are on top of it,” he said.
“It is going to be hard to let go, I’ll miss working with the people. I grew up with a lot of these guys.”
In May, Harrell was awarded the Bureau of Reclamations John Keys III award for his success building relationships in the community.