Whitewater boating season begins on Dolores River

Thursday, March 23, 2017 5:45 PM
Canoers marvel at the sights on the Lower Dolores River. Low-elevation snowmelt has boosted flows in the lower canyons sufficient for kayaking. A 2,000 cfs whitewater release below the dam is expected to begin in April and last for six weeks.
Ed Archuleta dicusses the lower Dolores bridge that CDOT is replacing.

The whitewater boating season has begun on the Dolores River.

Flows on the upper Dolores River above McPhee Reservoir were around 1,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) as of Thursday.

Below McPhee Dam, a 55-day whitewater release is currently planned, with initial ramp-up of 400 cfs per day starting around April 11. By April 16, rafting flows are expected to reach 2,000 cfs, and stay there for 30 days. Weather and runoff conditions could alter the release schedule.

In the third week of May, managers will release flushing flows of 4,000 cfs for several days to provide ecological benefits to the river. The high flows mimic a natural spring hydrograph, and benefit the river by scouring the channel, redistributing cobbles for fish spawning and improving pool habitat for native fish species. Flood-plain inundation also helps generate native vegetation growth by spreading seeds beyond the main channel.

After the spike in flows, the river will return to 2,000 cfs for the Memorial Day weekend, with ramp-down of 400 cfs per day expected in early June.

Bedrock bridge presents a hazard Boaters are being warned of new bridge construction a mile downstream of the Bedrock takeout.

The short section of river between Bedrock and the new bridge may have to be temporarily closed for short periods of time to allow for final construction.

While the bridge is finished, there won’t be enough head room for boaters to safely pass underneath, said Ed Archuleta, of the Colorado Department of Transportation. Spotters will warn boaters of the bridge construction, and signs along the river will also be posted, he said.

Natural flows at Slick Rock CanyonEven without the dam release, low-elevation snowmelt has already boosted river flows on the Slick Rock to Bedrock section to between 400 cfs and 700 cfs, enough for a canoe, kayak or small raft. The popular 50-mile section features Class II and III rapids in remote red-rock canyon country.

The Dolores River Boating Advocates and American Whitewater will be distributing information on a web-based boater survey at boater put-ins and take outs. A new upgraded campground map will be available as well.

At least one of the private river-access points at Slick Rock will be open to the public for a fee. Boaters are advised to keep dogs on a leash.

For public lands access, the Bureau of Land Management runs a campground and river-access point at the Gypsum Valley Recreation site, 14 miles down river or 25 road miles from Slick Rock.

From the Slick Rock bridge continue east on Colorado Highway 141 for 12 miles to graveled County Road 20 R. Turn left (west) and proceed 13 miles down 20 R to the Gypsum Valley Recreation Site. Facilities include a launch ramp, parking, picnic tables, grills and shelters. Camping is allowed.

Boater dreams fulfilledThe main Lower Dolores River boating run stretches for 100 miles through winding, red-rock canyons interspersed with rapids ranging from Class I to Class IV, including the famed Snaggletooth Rapid at mile marker 27. The Lower Dolores River is considered one of the premiere multiday boat trips in the nation when it has enough water to run. No permit is required.

In the past, when there was a whitewater release, McPhee Reservoir managers targeted 800 cfs for as long as possible below McPhee Dam. But after hearing from boaters in the past few years, the release level was adjusted to the preferred 2,000 cfs flow whenever possible.

“The water managers have made a huge effort to listen to the boating community,” said Sam Carter, of the Dolores River Boating Advocates.

For updates on the whitewater release schedule, go to The next update will be April 5. Once the spill begins, regular updates will occur on Mondays and Thursdays.

Reservoir access meeting March 30

Local lake managers will discuss mussel inspections plans at McPhee Reservoir and other local reservoir access issues at a community meeting on March 30, at 6 p.m. at the Destination Grill Conference Center in Cortez.
For more information, call the Dolores Water Conservancy office at (970) 565-7562.