The Montezuma County commission and San Juan Basin Farm Bureau have publicly come out against a fledgling proposal to create a National Conservation Area on the Lower Dolores River.
Citing concerns that the designation could result in additional water being released downstream from McPhee Reservoir, the commissioners voted 3-0 to oppose any such plan.
“At the beginning, the goal of the NCA was to protect our irrigation water for farmers and ranchers, and as things progressed I feel it has gotten away from that and went to native fish,” said commissioner Larry Don Suckla, who is on an NCA legislative committee.
But others involved said it is too early to take sides because the bill is still in a draft form and has not been released to the public yet.
“I think there is some misunderstanding of the intent of the NCA,” said Al Heaton, also a member of a legislative committee. “Once it’s out, there will be significant time for the public to read the draft and weigh in on it. It’s good to air it out, because there’s room for discussion, clarification and negotiation.”
The Lower Dolores Plan Working Group has been researching legislation for an NCA on the Lower Dolores River below McPhee dam since 2010. A draft is near completion and is expected to be available for review in the coming weeks.
At Monday’s commissioner meeting, Suckla said a draft he saw was “disturbing.” He was critical of the balance of 15 organizations listed in a memorandum of agreement directing the NCA proposal.
“This list is so unfair as far as equal representation for citizens of the county,” he said. “As a commission, our job is to protect property and water rights in Montezuma County, and I only see five entities here that side with that. Where’s the mining interests, the farm bureau, the private landowner interests?”
The Lower Dolores Working group, representing various stakeholders, has been studying the environmental and commercial needs of the river below the dam for over a decade.
One conclusion reached was that improving habitat for the native roundtail chub, bluehead sucker, and flannelmouth sucker on the Lower Dolores will help prevent them from being listed by the Endangered Species Act, federal intervention local officials want to avoid.
An NCA in the valley from below McPhee dam to the confluence with the San Miguel River was proposed because the designation is seen as a flexible management tool with more local control in finding negotiated solutions to problems.
As part of the deal, the section of Dolores River that runs through the proposed NCA would be stripped of its “suitability” status for a Wild and Scenic River, a highly protectionist federal designation. If Congress ever approved Wild and Scenic for the Dolores, it would likely come with a federally reserved water right, a situation opposed by local officials.
Proponents say an NCA is a good fit because it balances conservation with commercial uses, eliminates Wild and Scenic potential for that section of river, and offers more local control than, say, a national monument.
“The group reached consensus to pursue an NCA as a way to protect values in a way that doesn’t feel threatening to some stakeholders,” Amber Kelley, Dolores River coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance, said in an earlier interview. “The decision to develop an NCA as an alternative to Wild and Scenic suitability entails a compromise for everyone involved. A grass roots proposal is a far better option than having something imposed from the outside.”
But at the commission meeting some were skeptical of the NCA plan, and urged that the area continue under BLM management.
“I believe there is another way to protect fish without an NCA,” Suckla said.
In a letter, the local Farm Bureau outlined its opposition, saying an NCA threatened the region’s water resources managed by the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company and the Dolores Water Conservancy District, which operates McPhee Reservoir.
“The proposal has conflicting requirements with respect to its description of water rights and could set the stage for serious litigation,” according to the letter. “Except for new storage, the only . . . water supply . . . is from either MVIC or DWCD. This legislative path would set up a community fight between MVIC shareholders and DWCD full-service farmers.”
The letter goes on to say that the NCA proposal “does not include a water right” but because of uncertainties in federal and state water law, an NCA may have “unintended consequences driven by political or judicial actions initiated by folks with interests different than our interests.”
“We must ask ourselves, ‘are we supporting actions that may expand the ability of those interests to use the legal process to acquire water we did not intend to be available for acquisition?’”
A crux of the issue is how to improve downstream flows to benefit native fish. State and federal fish biologists have long recommended increasing McPhee’s designated fish pool for release to the Lower Dolores to 36,500 acre-feet from it’s current allocation of 31,800 acre-feet. But where the additional 4,701 acre-feet will come from has been a long-running debate.
Farm Bureau spokesperson Linda Odell said the fear is that an NCA could force the Bureau of Reclamation to acquire the additional 4,701 acre-feet from existing users.
In a statement, Marsha Porter-Norton, a facilitator with the Lower Dolores Plan Working Group, urged the public to be take time to review the proposed legislation.
“This process has always been very open and responsive to concerns that have been brought forward,” she stated. “Everyone involved knows that any successful legislation requires community support. If there are adjustments to the proposal that can be made to ensure a comfort level on the part of water users, I believe the legislative subcommittee, which contains leaders from the water community, is open to discussing those ideas.”