Dolores Wins Flows

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You’re chances of actually being able to paddle Southwestern Colorado’s Dolores River just got better … even without the onslaught of El Nino. The Colorado Water Conservation Board recently voted to seek an in-stream flow water right on the lower Dolores, securing up to 900 cfs of water during spring peak flows (if it’s available), as well as essential winter base flows of 100 cfs…

This is the largest instream flow protection on the Dolores River to date, and covers the reach of river near the Unaweep-Tabeguache Scenic and Historic Byway between the confluence of the San Miguel River, and the Town of Gateway. The water right will also help prevent three native warm-water fish in the Dolores River from becoming threatened or endangered species.

“We’re pleased with their decision to secure water for fish and wildlife on this magnificent river,” says Rob Harris, Staff Attorney at Western Resource Advocates (WRA), longtime partner of American Whitewater and legal council in the fight to restore flows to the stretch. “Healthy rivers are important for wildlife and recreation. Fishermen, boaters, and wildlife lovers can celebrate this decision that will help keep water flowing in the Dolores for generations to come.”

The Dolores River is a refuge for three native fishes struggling to survive (Flannelmouth Sucker, Bluehead Sucker, and Roundtail Chub). Since 2007, American Whitewater has worked to reform Dam operations at McPhee Reservoir to improve native fish habitat, and restore world-class whitewater boating on the Dolores River and the ISF right is a big part of a successful campaign.

Colorado’s instream water rights help keep water in a river or lake. They dedicate minimum water flows between specific points to preserve or improve the natural environment. These can be used to protect fisheries, waterfowl, frogs/salamanders, unique geologic or hydrologic features and habitat for threatened or endangered fish.

The rights can be monitored and enforced, under State water law thereby insuring long-term protections.AW’s 2010 Recreational Flow Study for the Dolores identified 800 cfs as the minimum flow for rafting this section. “We are pleased that the State is protecting peak spring flows that also benefit whitewater paddling,” says AW’s Nathan Fey.

Without dedicated instream flows awarded to the State, native fish could require protective action under the federal Endangered Species Act which could jeopardize any opportunity to secure releases for boating. The Board heard testimony opposing the instream flow water right, asking instead for additional diversions from the river for unspecified future urban or agricultural water demands. The Board deemed these requests speculative and unfounded, and will now approach the state water court to secure the water right.

Western Resource Advocates was supported by numerous conservation interests, including Conservation Colorado, Sheep Mountain Alliance, and the San Juan Citizens Alliance. “We’re proud of the part we’ve played defending this proposed instream flow water right,” said Jimbo Buickerood, Public Lands Coordinator at San Juan Citizens Alliance. “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. We thank the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management and our tireless partners in the conservation community who helped make today’s victory possible.”

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