Wild and Scenic Status for Lower Dolores River?

According to an early July Cortez Journal article, McPhee Reservoir managers are concerned that more sections on the lower Dolores River are becoming eligible for a national Wild and Scenic River status. Irrigation managers tend to cringe when they hear Wild and Scenic River talk downstream of their neighborhood, and the Dolores Water Conservancy Board is no exception. That’s because the protectionist designation typically comes with a federally reserved water right that would effect future water rights and could impact the flexibility of using existing water rights upstream. National Wild and Scenic River status targets pristine, scenic stretches and is the highest level of protection a river can receive from development and de-watering. Such designations are relatively rare in the Southwest, with only one such river in Colorado—the upper Poudre River—being awarded the designation. New Mexico has four, Utah one and Arizona two. An act of Congress is required to designate a river as Wild and Scenic. 

In response, however, U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) is discussing special legislation for the lower Dolores River area as opposed to wild and scenic status. Public land including a 92-mile section of the river from McPhee Dam to the confluence with the San Miguel is being considered for a new National Conservation Area (NCA). An NCA is a special type of land management directive, layered over federal lands, that is custom tailored to address community needs. The designation works to protect natural resources while respecting traditional uses of public lands under long-term plans. “What is unique about an NCA is that it is a bill negotiated in Congress, not a proclaimed designation like a National Monument,” said Mike Preston, Manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District. “NCA’s require consensus building and are more flexible because they are drawn up by constituents, not totally within the land management agency.”