Challenges have arose in the rewrite of a draft bill proposing the Dolores River National Conservation Area and Dolores River Canyon Wilderness designation below McPhee Dam.
The draft legislation is being written collaboratively by conservationists, several counties, water districts, agricultural groups and recreationists.
Its intent is to forge a compromise that further protects the land, but preserves water rights by dropping the river’s “suitability” status as a potential national wild and scenic river.
The designation must be passed by Congress and often comes with a federally reserved water right. That right could be pulled from the upstream McPhee Reservoir, which farmers rely on for farmers.
“A major part of the trade-off for water users is releasing wild-and-scenic suitability in exchange for an NCA and wilderness,” said David Robbins, a Colorado water attorney consulting on the draft bill.
But two main sticking points still need to be worked out before the draft bill could be presented to potential sponsors in the U.S. Congress next session.
The draft bill calls for a native fish monitoring and recommendation team that would help oversee needs of the flannelmouth sucker, bluehead sucker and roundtail chub.
The team can be appointed by the Interior secretary, but local stakeholders prefer it be appointed locally under Colorado Parks and Wildlife and state governor authority.
“The recommendation team needs to be people who live in the community,” said Ernie Williams, a Dolores County commissioner. “Taking the state route, we have a chance to use local scientific data to keep fish from being listed (as federally endangered).”
Another hurdle recently realized is protecting La Sal Creek, which flows into the Dolores River from Utah.
The creek falls within the proposed wilderness area and has a unique box elder and birch woodland. Upstream water-right holders depend on the creek for irrigation on private land when it runs in spring.
Conservationists report the creek’s unique vegetation values depend on its main flows in the spring, and they are concerned future development upstream could curtail the peak runoff depended on by the unique habitat.
La Sal Creek’s box-elder birch woodland is considered an “outstandingly remarkable value” by the BLM, and therefore is more closely analyzed for preservation.
“It presents a unique set of conflicts,” Robbins said. “You will have to decide how to describe the wilderness area as it relates to La Sal Creek.”
One idea was to increase the stream’s instream flow right through Colorado Water Conservation Board process to preserve the creek’s spring flows.
Other items in the draft bill are protecting access to private land, use of snow-measuring devices within the wilderness area and NCA, and that bill language will not conflict with the Dolores Project. The Dolores River itself would not be in the proposed wilderness area to avoid federal water right issues. The boundary of the wilderness would move with the level of the river.
“It is a stronger bill with collaborative effort that is setting us up for success,” said Celine Hawkins of The Nature Conservancy.