Mixed reviews on rivers

Colorado, Dolores get low marks; Yampa stars

The Colorado River makes its way through the Grand Valley. Conservation Colorado on Thursday issued a report giving the river a D grade, based on issues such as water quality and flow levels. The Dolores River in southwest Colorado also received a near-failing grade for the same reasons. The organization gave its highest ranking to the Yampa River, which it described as “near-pristine,” with very little diversion of water.

The Dolores and Colorado rivers graded out poorly, and the Yampa River quite well, in an environmental group’s new scorecard grading the health of eight rivers in Colorado.

Conservation Colorado on Thursday issued a report giving the Dolores a D-minus grade and the Colorado a D based on issues such as water quality and flow levels. It gave the Yampa an A.

The report, available at conservationco.org, gave the North Fork of the Gunnison River a B-minus, pointing to a lack of diversions out of the basin but saying that oil and gas development poses a pollution threat.

Other grades it issued include a C for the Arkansas River, a B for the Rio Grande, a C for the South Platte and a B-plus for the North Platte.

“This report is a call to action for anyone who cares about our rivers to get involved and fight to ensure they are clean, healthy and flowing,” Kristin Green, water advocate at Conservation Colorado, said in a news release.

The group says in its release that the state’s rivers “are threatened by climate change, overuse, poor dam management, energy development, and the needs of a population that is set to double by 2050. The report provides several ideas to protect our rivers, including conserving water, voluntarily sharing water rights, avoiding large new water diversions, building water-smart landscapes, and implementing Colorado’s Water Plan.”

The Dolores flows from southwest Colorado to Mesa County before veering into Utah. The report cites low flows in the river and increases in water temperature and silt and sediment that threaten coldwater native fish species. It says McPhee Dam near the community of Dolores has cut the river’s flows in half.

“Nearly two-thirds of the entire volume of the river is diverted every year, which is incredibly unsustainable if we aim to conserve this river for the future,” the report says.

On the Colorado, it points to well-known concerns such as a number of dams and reservoirs on the river and its tributaries, and heavy diversions to the Front Range, including up to 60 percent of flows in the upper reaches of some headwaters tributaries.

The report calls the Yampa “near-pristine,” with very little diversion of water. But it adds, “Proposed new storage projects and expansions threaten this free-flowing river.”

Jim Pokrandt, spokesman for the Colorado River District, said Conservation Colorado deserves a “big thank you … for an excellent summation of the challenges facing the state’s rivers, not the least being the Colorado River. As is pointed out, all stakeholders need to share in balanced means for improvement for the betterment of the state. Everybody has a role to play. In many cases, stakeholders are working on solutions.”

Montezuma County Commissioner Larry Don Suckla disagrees with the Dolores River grade.

“I believe — I’m down there on that river all the time — that it’s doing just fine,” he said.

He said the flows don’t look any different from when he was a kid below where the dam ended up being built in the 1980s. He said the creation of McPhee Reservoir has assured minimal streamflows below it, where previously the river sometimes would almost dry up.

That’s because of water diversion that occurs for irrigation, but the region is dependent on water from the river, he said.

“It’s the lifeblood of Montezuma County, I can tell you that,” he said.

Amber Clark, program coordinator for Dolores River Boating Advocates, released a statement from the group saying, “Without question the Dolores River is challenged; that is why we at DRBA do what we do. 

“However, it is extremely important to acknowledge that a lot of great collaborative work has been done and continues to be done at the local level. The problem is not dam management; there is simply not enough water for today’s competing interests and DRBA is dedicated to respecting consumptive water rights holders and working with the diversity of local stakeholders to continue finding solutions for the lower Dolores. We strongly feel that is where the best solutions come from.”

Both the boating group and Suckla praised a special water release that was made below the dam this year thanks to plentiful snowpack, boosting runoff flows to provide environmental and recreational benefits.

The boating group said in its statement, “Stakeholders — including water managers and farmers, recreationists, conservationists, fishery managers, and land managers — worked together to ensure that allocations from McPhee were met while providing a great boating season and accomplishing important ecological goals.”

It said local conversations also are occurring about a possible National Conservation Area designation for the Lower Dolores.


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