Flash flood shows sad state of Dolores River
Tropical Storm Ivo brought just shy of 2 inches of rain to much of the Dolores River Basin near the end of August. The rain provided a dichotomous situation for the thirsty land of Southwest Colorado. Along with the welcome moisture came a flash flood on the Lower Dolores River in Slickrock Canyon.
The Dolores River rose from 11 cubic feet per second to 400 cfs from Ivo's rains washing out immense amounts of accumulated silt. The silt had built up because, aside from a few minor flash floods, there has not been a sustained strong flush through the Dolores River canyon since the summer of 2011.
When Ivo's rains came through, this silt became a muddy slurry, inhabitable to the fish in the river. Scores of them died, starved of the oxygen they need to survive.
Observing all of this was a Cortez Journal reporter and a team of fish biologists from Colorado Parks and Wildlife who were conducting an annual native fish survey.
While the rain was welcome for the thirsty lands of Southwestern Colorado, the unfortunate die-off of the fish was a striking eye-opener regarding the state of the Dolores River below McPhee Reservoir.
It is understood that the water in the lake provides a great deal of life for Montezuma and Dolores counties through municipal and agricultural uses. Yet, the removal of this water at the current levels is harming the ecosystem of the river itself, as seen through the decline of native fish species.
The scientific study, "A Way Forward," organized through the Dolores River Dialogue, clearly states that without change to flows in the Lower Dolores River, the health of the fish will only further deteriorate.
This recent flash-flood event in the Slickrock Canyon highlights the urgency of the situation. The native fish in the Dolores River are not reproducing well, the population is aging, their habitat is being reduced and they are under predation from non-native fish. Time is of the essence for the survival of these species.
Regionally, a diverse group of stakeholders has been working to meet the various social and ecological needs for the water of the Dolores River. The native fish research from the "A Way Forward" project has been translated into a flow-management plan that accommodates agricultural, municipal and recreational uses.
Management base flow releases out of McPhee dam to provide significant springtime flushes can enhance ecosystem conditions for native fish populations as well as allow for a whitewater boating season to occur. This can be done while honoring the needs of our municipalities and of agricultural irrigation users.
There are challenges involved with this pursuit; yet if the message provided by the flash flood in Slickrock Canyon are ignored, the challenges that will be faced by our posterity will be daunting and disrespectful. It is important that we see the Dolores River as a vital water source for us, and those who will live on this dry land after we are gone.
The story of the flash flood in Slickrock Canyon can be found via a search on the Cortez Journal website for "Drowning in Mud," and more information about the efforts of the Dolores River Dialogue and "A Way Forward" project can be found at http://ocs.fortlewis .edu/drd/.
Sam Carter, a resident of Montezuma County, is a board member of the Dolores River Boating Advocates (www.doloresriverboating.org).