Taking care of the fish

Group looks for ways to protect native species

The Dolores River Dialogue and Lower Dolores Plan Working Group are going full steam ahead despite hopes of a spring reservoir spill evaporating after a dry March.

The group is in the process of drawing up boundaries for a natural conservation area and finding ways to preserve native fish populations on the river in an effort to prevent intervention from the federal government.

At a joint meeting held April 26, group members said they are working to protect private property rights and private water rights that could be jeopardized if the Lower Dolores River were designated as a Wild and Scenic River or if native fish species were declared endangered.

Conservationist and group member Peter Mueller said the numerous interests have come together and are working on a shared solution.

“We don’t want — as an entire community, including the conservation community — to be entangled in other federal processes, namely the threatened and endangered species act,” he said, adding it’s better for everyone to be in front of the problem rather than behind it.

At the recommendation of a report completed last summer, the group was going to experiment with an early release from McPhee Reservoir to cool the river to delay the native fish spawn until after the spring spill.

However, after a windy March with hardly any precipitation, water managers announced there would be no spill to help rafting on the Lower Dolores, and thus no need for the cooling release.

Mueller acknowledged that delivering more water on the river below the dam is not the only solution the group must look at to save the native fish populations.

“The conservation community wants to improve that amount,” he said. “But we know full well that we’re not entitled to more water.”

Mueller said conservation groups wish to buy more water, but no one is selling.

Last May, Stockholders of the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company overwhelmingly voted down a proposal to lease water to conservation efforts. The lease would have brought $1.2 million in revenue to the company in exchange for 6,000 acre feet of water for fish habitat over three years.

Stockholders had expressed fears that the leased water would be permanently seized or that they be shorted in case of a drought.

“The conservation community in particular was notorious for having a one-side solution for this problem and that solution was more water,” Mueller said. “And that really got us in trouble in terms of attacking a complicated problem. And it also got us in trouble with understanding this community and understanding the complexity of the community and the reliance on the water resource as the major economic driver of what sustains the Montezuma Valley.”

Published last year, a report dubbed “A Way Forward” was published offering suggestions to save the native fish species — including the roundtail chub, flanellmouth sucker and bluehead sucker — that have been struggling to survive in the Dolores River below McPhee Reservoir.

Suggestions include improving dam spill timing, improving base flows, initiating sediment flushing flows, changing thermal releases to match a more natural pattern, reducing the detrimental impacts of non-native species and stocking more native fish.

In addition the group is drawing up lines on the map for a proposed natural conservation area around the Lower Dolores — a process that is proving more challenging than expected due to the intricacies of local political views, private property lines, water rights and mineral rights.

“We’re all giving things up, we’re all compromising, but the goal is that we all get something in return as well,” said Amber Kelley, chair of the group’s legislative committee.

Despite hopes for a spring spill drying up and water being a fiercely contested resource for irrigation, drinking, industry and recreation — group members said this year has brought about a more conciliatory approach to the problem.

“I think we’ve moved past the idea that someone is to blame,” Mueller said. “We are here, in a sense, because of our desire to settle the West — to build communities, to build farms, to raise our children here and to revitalize the center of a very arid climate.”

The Lower Dolores Working Group was founded in 2008 by the Dolores River Dialogue. The group is made up of individuals from numerous conservation, land management, governmental, tribal, recreation and irrigation organizations. More information is available on the group’s website: http://ocs.fortlewis.edu/drd/.

Reach Reid Wright at reidw@cortezjournal.com