Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Lower Dolores River Boating Release 2016

The Dolores River Canyon below McPhee Reservoir.
The fertile Montezuma Valley of southwest Colorado is a heavily irrigated plain that grows pinto beans, wheat, corn, and alfalfa. 

An irrigation canal in the Montezuma Valley of southwest Colorado.
All that water has to come from somewhere. From the Dolores River, which has its source high in the San Juan mountain range. 

The Dolores flows cold, clean and beautiful from its source up near Lizard Head Pass at almost 14,000 feet in elevation, down to the town of Dolores. There it's dammed by McPhee Reservoir, second largest reservoir in Colorado. 

Downstream of the dam the Dolores is an emaciated high desert river, choked off to not much more than a trickle at times. That is unless the mountain peaks gather enough snow in the winter and spring to replenish McPhee to the point where the irrigation demands are met. And more. Only then is water released out of the dam for recreational boating.  

Driving down the steep gravel road into Dolores Canyon north of Dove Creek.
Last weekend, there was enough for a recreational boating "spill", for the first time in five years. I wanted to see it.

So I drove to Dove Creek ("Pinto Bean Capital of the World") and to the Dolores Canyon rim area. Hanging a left at the sign saying "River Access" I descended into the canyon. It had been a cool spring, and the hillsides of Gambel Oak were lush with bright green. As you reach the canyon bottom, there are also some scattered tall yellowbark Ponderosa Pine trees.

Down the steep twisting gravel road to the Dove Creek pump station, where the BLM has its Mountain Sheep Point Recreation Area.

Mountain Sheep Point Recreation Area in the Dolores Canyon, one of three put-in points for river runners.
There were about fourteen vehicles already parked at the site. I walked toward the river, where several parties were rigging up their boats. I talked to the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) law enforcement ranger that was overseeing the activity. 

Boaters rigging up on the Dolores at Big Sheep Point Recreation Area (Dove Creek pump station).
The ranger told me that, on average, the reservoir gets full enough to do a recreational spill for the lower Dolores boaters every four or five years.

I then drove the short ways downstream to the Box Elder Campground. It's right on the river, and true to its name there is a lot of shade to be had thanks to the large Boxelder trees (Acer negundo) growing there on the floodplain. There were only a couple sites taken. Doubtless the rest would be filled soon, it being Friday afternoon and a rare boating holiday to boot. I considered camping there, but decided to leave it to the boaters.

Riverside cliffs of the Dolores Gorge with the boating spill underway.
Dolores River at Box Elder Campground, the river still rising.
So I drove back out of the gorge, back to Dove Creek and then east toward Cortez. At Cahone I once again turned north. Across the green farm fields until the road swung down toward the river again. This was the Bradfield Bridge access area. The most upstream put-in point below the dam. From here you could float 97 river miles to Bedrock, Colorado, through one of the most scenic canyons in the southwest. It's 20 miles to where I'd just visited at Dove Creep Pump Station (Big Sheep Point Rec Area), then 40 miles to the Slick Rock bridge, passing through the Snaggletooth rapids stretch, which at 2,300 feet deep is the deepest part of the gorge. Finally, another 60 miles to Bedrock if you didn't take out at Slick Rock.
Boaters rigging up at Bradfield Bridge, uppermost put-in point on the lower Dolores below McPhee dam.
Why would a boater not go all the way down the 97 miles of fantastic wilderness river gorge to Bedrock if they had the time? Because of the unpredictable conditions of the release from the dam. The water coming into the dam from the high country varies with how fast the snow is melting up there. Plus, the warmer weather down here on the agricultural plain has the farmers using more water to irrigate their fields than if it was cooler.

Dolores River at Bradfield Bridge, 12 miles below the dam.
The bottom line is that the recreational boating spill is only going to last a few days, maybe more. The farmers and the towns get the water first and foremost. When the flow into the reservoir slacks off too much, the flow out of the dam will, too.  

Which means that a boat can get stranded somewhere down the gorge if the boatman guesses wrong. High and dry when the river flow slacks off too much. And the country is much too rugged to drive a vehicle down to the river except for all but a few choice spots. So one must plan according. Better safe than stranded.

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the lower Dolores in lush springtime vegetation. Even more so to see the river flowing for several days at least, and river runners that love the Dolores to be able to experience at least a few more days down in that wilderness gorge.

© Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg