The River of Our Lady of Sorrows, the Dolores River, was named “El Rio de Nuestra Senora de Dolores” when a Spanish trader encountered the river in 1765. But in many ways, the only sorrowful thing about the Dolores River is that like so many rivers in the West, it is, perhaps, too well loved.
Humans have lived in the region the Dolores flows through for more than 10,000 years, and the archeology in some of the steep, sandstone canyons is unmatched. Now, humans treasure this high-desert river for its sacred value, the crops and cattle it waters, the habitat it sustains for plants and wildlife, the amazing experience of boating it, and the water it provides for drinking, among other things.
With headwaters at 14,000 feet and a nearly 230-mile run to its confluence with the Colorado River near Utah, the Dolores is a gateway to truly world-class scenery. Like its neighbor, the San Miguel, the headwaters of the Dolores River and West Dolores River are also in the San Juan Mountains, but both branches flow southwest before converging just above the town of Dolores. McPhee Reservoir, where Dolores River waters are held for agriculture, is located just southwest of the town. And from there, the Dolores meets a fate shared by many in the West, as every drop is allocated to agricultural production. While some reservoirs help buffer fluctuations in water availability between wet and dry years, that isn’t the case for the Dolores. Despite being the second largest reservoir in Colorado, McPhee doesn’t have the storage capacity to stow away enough for agricultural rights and flows for recreation and endangered fish.
Water released from the dam flows sharply northwest through Ponderosa and Slickrock Canyons, uniting with the San Miguel before flowing through the Paradox Valley and, ultimately, through Gateway Canyon and into the Colorado River.
When water is released, nearly 170 miles of it are floatable. In 2016, the Dolores River ran for the first time in five years. A healthy winter snowpack translated to some short-lived and well-celebrated releases that allowed for boating through the amazing Dolores River Canyon. On the rare opportunity to float, paddlers marvel at the towering sandstone walls, the regular encounters with beavers, the unique way floating the Dolores becomes paddling through coyote brush and tamarisk. Because high water flows are such a rare occurrence, campsites are overgrown and under established.
Since 1968 when initial construction on the McPhee Dam began, stakeholders in the region have worked to develop river management plans that support the river’s cold water fish species, alongside agricultural irrigation and the desire for recreation flows. The reservoir was completed in 1984, and in 1990, a dry summer limited flows from McPhee to less than 20 CFS, resulting in a major kill of cold water fish.
In both 1976 and again in 2013, the Dolores River was found suitable for a Wild and Scenic river designation. Since then, many have worked to find river management solutions that can work for all users—from ag to rec, and for the river itself. As increasing demand and impacts from climate change put additional strain on this hardworking system, new and innovative approaches to meeting the needs will be critical.
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