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Dolores River Serves Many, Making Its Future Hard To Settle

In 1885, the Montezuma Valley Irrigation District completed a tunnel that moved water from the Dolores River to the Montezuma Valley. This trans-basin diversion allowed the town of Cortez and the entire valley to grow and thrive.  But this transfer, and later McPhee dam, changed the Dolores River. A hundred and fifty years later, the community is working to find a balance between keeping the water it has long relied on, and meeting federal requirements for healthy fish and a protected river downstream. Reporter Stephanie Paige Ogburn has more on those efforts.

Don Schwindt's hay fields cut a green swath across 400 acres a few miles outside of Cortez. On a warm fall day, he walks out near a barn and points out a row of tall cottonwood trees.

"It's fall, and they've got some beautiful colors to them," said Schwindt.

The water that feeds those trees, Schwindt's hay, and most of the farm fields in the Montezuma Valley comes from the Dolores River. Farmers have been diverting from the river for over 150 years. In today's world, though, the lower Dolores River is supposed to serve more than farmers. It is a home for native fish, a canyon with wilderness characteristics, a rafting destination. Those competing needs are what has led the community to try and create a new way forward on the river.


In 1885 the Montezuma Valley Irrigation District completed a major trans-basin diversion tunnel that brought water out of the Dolores and to the valley. For Schwindt and others, it's important that this history and the importance of that water is recognized.
"Our communities, everything we know here, it would not have developed the way it had if it hadn't kind of leapfrogged off of [that early water diversion]," he said.

The orchards, hayfields and trees in the valley are all here courtesy of borrowed water. But that early water was not enough, and didn't always last the entire growing season. That's why farmers saw the water brought later from the Dolores Project, which created McPhee dam in the early 1980s, as so important.

Yet while fields blossomed in the Montezuma Valley, the lower Dolores was changing. The dam and other diversions took their toll on native fish species. Now, three of those species are dwindling. If they are listed as federally threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, it could lead to calls for more water to go down the river. In turn, that would likely mean less water for the people of the Montezuma Valley.


It's this threat, as well as the possibility the river might be declared Wild and Scenic or even a national monument, that got people in the community to come together and work on a home-grown solution to managing the river. This started over a decade ago with the Dolores River Dialogue, said Dan Olson, who heads a local environmental group, the San Juan Citizens Alliance.

Now that group, which includes representatives from ranching, farming, boating, local government and other parts of the community, has drafted legislation they hope will give the community more control over the river's future. The legislation calls for the creation of a National Conservation Area. It's not a new concept in Colorado: McInnis Canyon and Dominguez-Escalante Canyon, as well as Gunnison Gorge, are also NCAs. Dan Olson of SJCA says the goal is to protect the river and the lands around it but also protect farmers.

"While we don't put wet water back in the river, the NCA affirms the importance of maintaining habitat and species health while actually maintaining water rights," said Olson.


It's that last part, maintaining water rights, that has hay farmer Don Schwindt worried. It might be easy for those opposing his views to dismiss them, but Schwindt doesn't come across as unreasonable. He says he knows the process included many stakeholders, but he also fears the interests of farmers have not been well represented.

In fact, irrigation shareholders were so disappointed with the actions taken by the board of the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company as part of the stakeholder process that they voted six out of seven of its members out of office in recent years, said Schwindt -- a highly unusual step.

It's not easy to find a solution that can meet everyone's needs: keeping enough water in the river at the right times to protect fish, letting boaters have their fun, and maintaining existing water rights.. Still, Al Heaton, who has also participated in drafting the legislation for a National Conservation Area, thinks it is doable.

Heaton, an even-tempered rancher who runs cattle in the canyon and grew up in Dove Creek, admits he's worried about the water rights part of the legislation. But he says it is a priority.

"I feel like we put some pretty strong wording in there to protect their water rights," he said.

Plus, right now the legislation is in draft form. That means it's open for comment, and he welcomes feedback on improving it to meet the needs of different users.

Not long ago, the group of stakeholders working on the legislation hired David Robbins, a prominent water lawyer, to review the work. Robbins agreed that the best way to keep control of the river's future is to craft legislation with local support, stating it is not a question of "if," but "when" some sort of federal control might come to bear on the river.

The challenge for those involved in the draft legislation process might now be to convince those in agriculture that it preserves their water rights. Don Schwindt says he's skeptical. While he hasn't given up on the stakeholder process, he also wonders if it is really protecting the community's interests.

"If it can't ever live up to its promises of making our community's water rights, life, better, then i'll be in that camp of let's just live with the risk we have."

The risk he's referring to is that of a federal mandate. Its true that it could be a long time before the hammer of any federal action falls down on the lower Dolores. Even attorney Robbins noted it is unlikely the river would be designated as Wild and Scenic without community support.

Likewise, the local legislation could have a hard time getting through a deadlocked Congress that has a hard time even passing a budget. In the meantime, those involved in drafting the legislation will continue taking comment from the community, hoping to craft a solution that works for all.

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