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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

Connecting the Drops

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Water Education Colorado

Solutions for a Troubled River

Strategies to improve flows in the lower Dolores River have been under discussion for decades, most ending in acrimony. Yet in 2002, when flows at the Slick Rock gage below McPhee Dam dropped below one cubic foot per second, it became obvious that dialog needed to resume. Collaborating with Dolores Water Conservancy District former general manager Steve Arveschoug (and now former manager John Porter), Chuck Wanner of the San Juan Citizen's Alliance and members of the newly-formed Dolores River Coalition agreed to sit down and attempt to find solutions to how best to manage the shallow waters of the lower Dolores River.

‘The goal of the Dialog is to develop consensus as to what is needed to maintain and preserve the river below the dam and restore its natural hydrograph, maintain native fisheries, and provide water for rafting and the cold-water trout fishery—in that order,’ says Wanner. Comprised of some two-dozen conservation groups, state agencies, and water user organizations, the dialog has been progressing with the aid of a professional facilitator since the spring of 2003.

Options under consideration for better management of the river include re-channeling the river's course, planting trees for shading and cooling the river, and building more storage so that the fishery has more water without harming present allocations.

Although many issues are divisive, one of the main concerns where they do have consensus is that the river below the dam is stressed—and has been ever since water was first removed for a transbasin diversion some 100 years ago. ‘It's a good example of the negative impacts of transbasin diversion projects,’ says Wanner. ‘Nobody's blaming anybody, but from our perspective, in the long haul, the river got shorted.’

Concerns related to low flows have been highlighted recently by attention to water quality problems. Declining fish populations—particularly trout—have been attributed to warm water temperatures, algae growth, and sediment increases: all related to a lack of water exacerbated by the recent drought.

Tensions recently increased in July when the EPA used its federal authority to override the state's recommendations, and placed the Dolores River below the dam on the state's list of most polluted waters, the 303(d) list, for impairments to aquatic life.

Immediately, this placed the Dolores River at the center of Colorado's ongoing tensions regarding the extensive use of water resources versus the desire to maintain good water quality. In Colorado law, water quality and quantity are independent. Requiring more water in the river to mitigate water quality problems is not allowed. According to Doug Benevento, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, it should stay that way. ‘If the EPA gets into the business of telling us that more water needs to be put in Colorado streams because of water quality problems, it is going to cost us a lot of money…and we may end up losing a lot of adjudicated water to other states, particularly in dry years,’ he remarked at a presentation in late August.

Trout Unlimited, one of the main proponents of the listing, doesn't agree that EPA's action challenges the state's water right system, or that it is a backdoor attempt to regulate water quantity. According to TU lawyer Melinda Kassen, this isn't about water rights, it's about using the Clean Water Act to restore a seriously degraded stretch of river. ‘The river is in trouble—that's the issue here,’ contends Kassen. ‘In an ideal world, we would like more water in the river. But if we can't have that, we should be trying to figure out how to make these fisheries exist with less.’ Placing this segment on the 303(d) list would open up more funding opportunities to accomplish necessary restoration work, such as deepening the river channel. ‘We have already done this kind of restoration on the Arkansas River below the Pueblo Dam, and on the Rio Blanco,’ she asserts. ‘And it may help provide a solution for the Dolores.’

Public comment to the EPA regarding the proposed listing was open until September 20th. A final listing decision based on public comment will be issued sometime in the following months.

To what extent the Dolores Dialog takes on this issue remains to be seen. However, what they are committed to is the power and potential for community collaboration to help best manage this shallow river. Consensus and local solutions are key to any new management scenarios that come out of their discussions, concludes Wanner. ‘Solutions that grow out of the community are the ones that last.’

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