Overlooking a canyon in the arid region of the Colorado Plateau west of the San Juan Mountains, two filmmakers stood in disbelief at the plight of the river before them.
“We were at this overlook and saw that there was no water in the river, and we both thought, ‘What is the deal with this?’” said Ben Saheb, filmmaker for the local multimedia production company Rig to Flip, dedicated to water education and awareness. “Once we learned that the river essentially has no recreational boating or water for fishing below the McPhee Reservoir, we, as storytellers, said, ‘Wow, one day we would love to do a film about this river.’”
Dubbed “The River of Sorrows” by early Spanish explorers, the Dolores River was dammed in the late 1980s, forming the McPhee Reservoir. Various stakeholders had drafted the Dolores Project Plan seeking to secure water supplies in response to water flows running dry or dangerously low from overuse.
The day to tell this river’s complex story of conflicts about water use along the drought-stricken river has finally come to fruition after three avid rafters and environmental enthusiasts from Rig to Flip — Cody Perry, Jules Poma and Saheb — were presented with the opportunity from Dolores River Boating Advocates to approach the sensitive issues with a neutral perspective.
“When you see a dead river, whether you’re a fisherman rafter, etc., it strikes something in you to see it barely trickling,” said Poma, photographer for Rig to Flip. “We wanted to portray not only the grandeur of the river, but this sorrow and sadness of the state that it’s in (and) still to show the love that people have for it. It’s still beautifully preserved and pristine, with the only impact being that water was taken out.”
In July 2014, DRBA received a grant from Patagonia for $12,000 to create “River of Sorrow: The Dolores River Project” about the spectrum of issues surrounding the river. From a competitive list of applicants, DRBA chose Rig to Flip as the production company to create the film.
Lee-Ann Hill, program coordinator for DRBA, said the film project will cost more than $20,000, still a modest amount, made possible by the pro bono and volunteer hours both Rig to Flip and DRBA have offered. Other sponsors include Osprey Packs, American Whitewater, the Conservation Land Foundation and local businesses and supporters.
“What stood out for me was their depth of storytelling and digging into a story in a different way,” said Sam Carter, board president of DRBA. “They were able to attach that human, emotional, heartfelt component to a story that could be something as simple as Warm Springs. Those three have an invigorating method of interacting with us, the people they met and the landscapes that connect new knowledge of what we will leave.”
While DRBA had topics it wanted covered in the film and asked for the respect of dialogue between water users and boaters, Rig to Flip was given poetic license to ignite the conversation about issues surrounding the river. In turn, those interviews and conversations allowed the story to unfold to new revelations.
“As a young river runner, I would hear others around me mention it’s name, and it stirred a desire to explore something I haven’t yet had a chance to,” said Perry, project director for the documentary and a former Steamboat local. “It’s such a rare experience. It was something you couldn’t just go do, because everything had to be lined up. That’s why I always wanted to go do it. The river drew us down there, because we knew from the start that there was a story there.”
Allocating water to irrigate 70,000 acres of arid land for nearby communities, including the city of Cortez and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Dolores Project Plan allowed farmers to extend the annual planting season through September. Approximately 241 miles long, the Dolores — a tributary of the Colorado River that flows through Colorado and Utah — had downstream releases that were more than cut in half after the dam was in place, exacerbating two decades of drought in the Colorado River basin.
“The biggest challenge was giving an equal voice to all of the stakeholders,” Saheb said. “The agriculture community has their opinion and so does the boating community, the fishing community and the water board. Our biggest challenge was to reach out to these people and convince them that we are not out there to throw them under the bus, but to tell their story and how they relate to this river.”
Through countless interviews and hours of footage, the three found surprising revelations as the river’s story began to take shape.
“The biggest themes coming out of the interviews was that everyone’s livelihood depends on that river and that watershed,” Saheb said. “There were more commonalities than differences that we found, yet the community down there seems to be very divided on that river. They all have their idea on how to manage it and use it. There’s a lot of tension.”
Apart from the thematic river issues, the film also presents a range of historic footage, including the 1984 flood reel of the Dolores River when it was measured at 8000 cubic feet per second, an event Saheb said is impermanent and a piece of history that has never before been seen.
Boating the vast expanse of the Dolores River was out of the question for the Rig to Flip crew. However, they were able to experience it by exploring on foot and through a flight that showed them the stark realities of what they’d heard in interviews.
“I found it most difficult to capture the grandeur of the Dolores,” Poma said. “People say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, nothing can compare to experiencing that place. Being down in those canyons, there are these massive Ponderosa trees and gorges; it’s impossible to get from a frame what it feels like to stand next to those. You can’t gain that from a photo.”
Saheb said the film will run 22 minutes and will be completed in May. The filmmakers plan to enter it in film festivals across the country and on programs such as PBS. Also, Saheb said they hope to bring the film to Steamboat Springs in May.
“I hope people allow it to affect their way of thinking and how they look at whatever basin is near them,” Poma said. “There are many rivers across the west like the Dolores, with small populations that you don’t really hear about. Raising awareness has been our goal, whether in our own community or of the Dolores, to show what happened and that it could happen anywhere. Maybe it’s time that we, as a culture, start learning from the past.”