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As The Drought Intensifies in the Four Corners, Its Impacts Are Visible on McPhee Reservoir's Shores

Austin Cope
The Dolores River flows into the southeastern portion of McPhee reservoir outside of Dolores on June 12. Photo taken from McPhee Overlook Trail.

Understanding the impacts of drought on everyday life isn't easy. Water access and distribution is complicated, especially in a place like the Four Corners. One way to make sense of it all is to examine a local reservoir that's a microcosm of the larger drought in the Colorado River Basin. KSJD's Austin Cope visited McPhee Reservoir, which provides water to a large part of Southwest Colorado, and talked to water managers to break down what's happening there.



For over two decades, the Colorado River Basin, which extends into seven states in the western half of the United States, has been gripped by an extended drought. Since 2000, the basin has seen its lowest 16-year period of inflow in the past century of record-keeping, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior. That drought has intensified over the past three years, including in the Four Corners. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the Four Corners region is currently experiencing extreme to exceptional drought conditions, the two highest levels on its scale.


To witness the impacts of this most recent dry period,McPhee Reservoir is a good place to start. As the largest artificial body of water in Montezuma County, McPhee Reservoir provides water to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, many of the farmers in Montezuma and Dolores Counties, and the municipalities of Cortez and Towaoc. It also feeds the Dolores River below the McPhee dam. 


Four years ago, McPhee was so full from runoff that managers released the largest spill of water through the dam in almost a decade. But this year, the dark blue waves, which once lapped against Great Cut Dike at the reservoir’s western end, have been replaced by cracks of dried, brown mud. Dust devils whip across the surface, and the water’s edge can barely be seen through the heat mirages rippling through the air. This spring, the dam released just enough water to keep water in the lower Dolores River–only about 10 cubic feet per second. Later this season, it will be even less. 


On a hot afternoon in early June, two water managers from the Dolores Water Conservancy District (DWCD) sat at an overlook high above the reservoir’s main channel. DWCD  operates the Mcphee Reservoir and several other irrigation features in the region known collectively as the Dolores Project. Near the marina below, a large island poked out of McPhee’s main channel. 


Credit Austin Cope
A large island to the west of McPhee Marina was exposed by decreased water levels on June 8th. Photo taken June from McPhee Recreation Complex Overlook.

“That island shouldn’t be there,” Eric Sprague, DWDC’s water resource specialist, said with a bitter laugh. 


Ken Curtis, DWDC’s General Manager, pointed out historic irrigation canals and former tunnels built before the Dolores River was dammed. They have now been exposed by the receding water. 


One way to monitor the amount of available water in the reservoir, Curtis and Sprague explained, is to look at its “active capacity.” They pointed to Great Cut Canal, at the edge of the lake’s western arm. Water above the canal’s opening, located at 6,855 feet above sea level, can easily flow out of the reservoir. Anything below that opening is part of the reservoir’s “inactive capacity” which can’t be used for large-scale irrigation projects. Instead, it remains in the channel to be used for municipal water, managing downstream fisheries, and helping the lake reach active capacity the following year. 


On June 8, the water was about 15 feet above the canal’s opening, at around 6870 feet in elevation. DWDC posts daily reservoir levels on its website, and since then the levels have remained constant. When full, the reservoir’s elevation is 6,924 feet. The 15 feet of elevation remaining in the reservoir’s active capacity include about 38,0000 acre feet of water. 


Curtis explained that most of that water is being stored for Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company (MVIC), a private firm that services most of the farms in the Montezuma Valley. MVIC holds more senior water rights than the Dolores Project, so it can store its water in McPhee and use it throughout the season. About 31,000 acre feet of the reservoir’s active capacity will be allocated to MVIC, whose shareholders will receive about half of the irrigation water they would in a wet year.  


“MVIC is the primary user right now,” Curtis said. “Depending on their usages, that should get them through August.” 


Credit Austin Cope
Ken Curtis, General Manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District, points out features exposed by dropping water levels in McPhee Reservoir on June 8th.

However, McPhee also provides irrigation water to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and to farmers in both Dolores County and the parts of Montezuma County not covered by MVIC or other private irrigation companies.  


Currently, McPhee’s full-service irrigators and the tribe are only using 10 percent of their normal water allocations. Curtis expects severe economic difficulties for the farmers. And though the tribe already uses water-efficient technologies to irrigate its farm and ranch enterprise, their crops are limited to corn and their highest-value alfalfa fields, according to tribal chairman Manuel Heart. 


Though spring and early summer runoff could help increase McPhee’s active capacity on a good year, it may not help this year unless the summer monsoons bring a lot of rain, said Sprague. 


In order to estimate the amount of water they expect to come from the basin, water managers monitor snowpack, soil moisture, and seasonal weather outlooks. The data they collect helps them to determine water allocations in advance. 


And this year, the forecast is not good. According to a joint statement by DWCD and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe released in late May, 2021’s runoff may be the fourth worst on record, after those in 1977, 2018, and 2002. That’s because of three straight years of lower-than-normal monsoon rains, 83 percent of normal snowpack this winter, and a dry windy spring that melted snow even faster than in the past. 


And while the seasonal water supply forecast can help determine allocations in the short term, predicting longer-term climatic changes is even more difficult.  


“I understand the climate change trends,” Curtis said. “But there’s still a lot of unknown.” 


He also said that it’s difficult to determine the difference between impacts from climate change and impacts from severe droughts. The region has seen other severe droughts in the past, he and Sprague explained, so water managers can use past data to try to predict how this drought could play out. But they also said that a changing climate is moving water managers into uncharted territory, and that they haven’t yet found ways to understand its long-term impacts on the region’s water resources. 


“But trust me,” Curtis said. “Everybody's thinking about it, and there are a lot of ideas being thrown out.”. 


When asked if there was a potential for future disagreements or conflict over the usage of McPhee’s water, Curtis was blunt. 


“No,” he said simply. 


Credit Austin Cope
Canal #2, built by irrigators in the early 20th century to provide water to the Montezuma Valley from the Dolores River, has been exposed by the decreasing water in McPhee Reservoir.

The allocations governed by the Dolores Project are based on contracts negotiated in the late 1970s. Those contracts did not include an end date, so even small-scale renegotiations would require the consent of both parties. Even then, Curtis explained, there simply would not be much to negotiate. The contracts are based on Colorado water law, which is governed by the principle of prior appropriation, or “first in time, first in right.” That principle is enshrined in the state constitution, which would require a two-thirds vote by the legislature and then a vote of the people to amend. Curtis didn’t expect such a drastic change to happen any time soon.  


“Locally, we’re just operating according to the contracts,” Curtis said. “If that long-term [dry] trend stays, it’s tough to say how that will play out.”


He speculated that long-term changes at the regional level could have other impacts, however. For example, residential development in lower-Colorado River basin states like Arizona and California has reduced farmland and continued to stretch the states’ water resources. And, he said, those states are beginning to come to terms with those issues as negotiations relating to the Colorado Water Compact get underway


Curtis said there is also a risk of the Dolores River Basin’s water rights being cut off to satisfy more senior water rights elsewhere in Colorado, though he emphasized that such a scenario is dependent on many complex variables. In general, he referred to issues outside of the Dolores River Basin, especially those that impact the entire Colorado River Basin, as “big-river issues.” They affect people at the local level, he explained, and water managers and users keep close track of them, but they aren’t governed by the same set of rules and natural forces that govern McPhee.  


Regardless, Curtis and Sprague said decisions dictating future water rights, use, and allocation will be made collectively, both at the local level and the national level. No one individual or group has the power to determine the best way to manage a river basin.  


“A bunch of engineers could probably determine that, but people wouldn’t like it,” Curtis—a water engineer by training – joked. 


But as he and Sprague explained the stakes of the drought - and the complexity of the interests at play - they remained clear that the issue was no joking matter. And as the midday sun burned overhead, water’s significance to life in the region was more tangible than ever: the last of the snow was melting from the nearby La Plata mountains and flowing towards the Dolores River.

Austin Cope is a former Morning Edition host for KSJD and now produces work on a freelance basis for the station. He grew up in Cortez and hosted a show on KSJD when he was 10 years old. After graduating from Montezuma-Cortez High School in 2010, he lived in Belgium, Ohio, Spain, northern Wyoming, and Himachal Pradesh, India before returning to the Cortez area. He has a degree in Politics from Oberlin College in Ohio.
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