Irrigators, rafters face bleak summer

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

The mountains need a lot more snow to fill the lower-than-normal McPhee Reservoir.

By Emery Cowan
Journal Staff Writer

Area boaters have come to terms with the fact that another dry year has dashed any chance for rafting on the lower Dolores River this summer.

But revised runoff forecasts and precipitation reports are predicting a situation for farmers and local fish populations that just keeps getting worse.

Updated reports from the Dolores Water Conservancy District estimate that inflow, or runoff from April to July, into McPhee Reservoir will be 125,000 acre feet this year if current conditions continue. As of Monday, the active storage was 37,170 acre-feet, which is 16 percent of active capacity.

That means full-service irrigators in the Yellow Jacket and Dove Creek areas will receive just 42 percent of their full allocation, or about 10.3 inches per acre.

Holders of senior Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company rights will fare better, with reports predicting they will receive 80 percent to 87 percent of full supply.

Since Feb. 1, inflow forecasts for the Dolores River have been revised downward by 80,000 acre-feet because of a spring season defined by diminishing snowpack and dry soils, said Mike Preston, general manager of the water conservancy district.

Current snowpack in the Dolores River basin is 66 percent of average for this time of year, Preston said.

The updated predictions mean that farmers like Larry Deremo, who farms south of Dove Creek, will likely only get one cutting of hay this year.

"We're going to run out of water in the middle of summer. There's no doubt about it," said Deremo, who is a full-service irrigator and a member of the Dolores Water Conservancy District's board of directors.

Preston confirmed that if current weather conditions continue, irrigation water from the reservoir will only flow until August or September.

Part of the current situation can be attributed to the level of reserve water left over from last year. This year, the reservoir started with a reserve of just 43,000 acre-feet in active or usable stored water - almost 100,000 acre-feet less than last year.

That's because last year, despite 2012 being the driest in the history of the Dolores Project, the water district's board decided to draw down the reservoirs reserve storage. Farmers got three cuttings of hay and had the opportunity to buy extra water, Deremo said. The water conservancy district knew that using the extra water would mean trouble for the reservoir's reserves if this year turned out to be a dry one, but many farmers were halfway through their third hay cutting when their water was due to run out. Giving them extra water allowed farmers to finish their crop, Deremo said.

"Prices for hay have been really good so the board felt it was more important to have a good year last year than to cut back," he said. "Now that we're short this year, well, that's just what Mother Nature does to us."

The reservoir's low levels also have major impacts for fish downstream from the dam.

The water allocated for downstream release is slated to be reduced by the same percentage as that allocated for irrigation. For fish, that means the lower Dolores River will be slowed to almost a trickle during the hottest summer months, said David Graf, a regional water specialist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

At 42 percent of full service, average flows downriver from the dam this year will be 18.5 cubic feet per second. During a full allocation year, releases from the dam allow summer base flows of about 60 cubic feet per second, Graf said.

With so little water this year, water will pool in different parts of the river with very little flow between them, Graf said.

That will have several consequences for fish. First, they will be stranded in areas where the water pools, creating more competition for scarcer space and resources.

The end result will be fewer fish in the river, which will affect the trout fishery below the dam, Graf said.

Also, several native fish species that are subject to conservation agreements will likely have even greater difficultly finding food because they feed on algae and macroinvertebrates that thrive in the ripples caused by flowing water, Graf said.

And with low flow, there isn't enough water to flush out sediment washed into the river by summer rainstorms, which can further alter the river environment.

"It's not shaping up to be a positive year for fish species in the Dolores," he said.

If history is any indication, the future of boating on the Lower Dolores also looks bleak.

"Unfortunately we're getting used to this scenario where there are no releases for recreation," said Jay Loschert, program coordinator with the Dolores River Boating Advocates group. "It's reinforcing a pattern we've seen since the dam went in. We've lost over 50 percent of boating opportunities in terms of days we have and years where there are no releases at all. It's sort of the current reality."

Two years ago was the last time there was a spill for whitewater recreation below the dam.

Any hope for a regular, reliable boating season on the lower Dolores will require larger discussions about how the river's water is currently allocated, he said.

"The outlook isn't great until the water math changes," he said.

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