The Value of McPhee Reservoir and the Dolores River, by Mike Preston

McPhee Reservoir is the centerpiece of the Dolores Project, which expanded irrigation to 28,500 acres of land from Yellow Jacket to Dove Creek and to 7,600 acres of Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch operations. These irrigated lands produce some of the highest-quality dairy hay in the West, along with a variety of other crops, including 640 acres of native seed that is being used to restore BLM lands across the west. The project also provides water to a growing number of smaller vegetable producers. Project farmers are experimenting with a range of other crops to diversify markets and manage under drought conditions. The Ute Mountain Ute tribal farm is a model of efficiency and productivity fulfilling the intent of the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement for the tribe to have a strong agricultural base, as well as clean water for household use and commercial development. The tribal farm is diversifying beyond crop production by developing a corn milling operation and a line of products, such as blue, white and yellow corn, meal chips, and cooking products. Three thousand acres of the tribal farm is now devoted to producing corn for these value-added product lines marketed under the tribe’s “Bow and Arrow” brand.  From an economic standpoint, lands irrigated by the Dolores project generate tens of millions of dollars a year in local economic activity. From a cultural standpoint, the project supports more than 190 commercial family farms. The high value placed on agriculture is a core value in Dolores and Montezuma counties that goes beyond economics to the wildlife habitat and open space that irrigated farms provide and everyone enjoys.

The project also supplies lawn and garden water and well augmentation for 600 rural households. It includes domestic and industrial water supplies capable of meeting the needs of the towns of Cortez, Dove Creek, Towaoc, and rural water providers for the next 50 years. Another benefit is that before McPhee Dam, the Dolores River was reduced to a trickle by the end of July and Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company shareholders didn’t have enough water to finish the growing season. Post-McPhee, MVIC is able to provide irrigation water through September. The project currently stores 32,000 acre feet--the second largest allocation in the project, for release to downstream fisheries. Fish flows in August would have been 10 cfs, but are now 75 cfs.