A 10-day whitewater boating release is planned for the Dolores River below McPhee dam and reservoir, managers announced this week.
The recreational water flows will be let out from Tuesday to May 30 and are scheduled to accommodate boaters over the Memorial Day weekend.
“Timing the release early for the three-day holiday was a big interest for the boating community,” said Mike Preston, general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District.
Beginning Tuesday, the managed “spill” will increase at a rate of 400 cubic feet per second per day to achieve a 1,200 cfs flow by the morning of May 24. The high flow will be maintained through May 27, then ramp down to 800 cfs through noon May 30. A gradual ramp down over a few days will follow.
However, the managed release is expected to continue after May 30, but to what extent has not yet been determined, water officials said.
Winter snowpack that reached 140% of normal is enough to fill McPhee Reservoir and provide the boating release below the dam. Recent cooler and rainy weather in Southwest Colorado has slowed the snowpack runoff, creating uncertainty about the final timing.
“There is still a substantial amount of high-elevation snow above 9,500 feet remaining,” said Eric Sprague, an engineer technician with the water district.
The inflow rate will depend on hard-to-predict temperatures and potential rain in the coming weeks. McPhee is expected to reach full capacity by mid-June, said district engineer Ken Curtis, and all irrigators will get a full supply for the season.
A dry winter in 2017-18 nearly depleted the active pool of the 380,000-acre-foot reservoir, which feeds Montezuma and Dolores counties and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
But a surprise rebound this winter – fueled by the wet El Niño weather pattern – is rapidly filling it, with flows of the Dolores River at Dolores reaching a turbulent 2,400 cfs in recent days.
The 97-mile stretch of the Dolores River below the dam from Bradfield Bridge to Bedrock is revered by boaters for its challenging rapids and remote, red-rock canyon wilderness.
The three- to five-day Slick Rock-to-Bedrock section through winding Slick Rock Canyon offers a pristine river running experience. The 18-mile, one-day Ponderosa Gorge has convenient access and fills with enthusiastic locals and tourists when the river runs. No permit is required to boat the Dolores River.
The expert Snaggletooth Rapid is especially notorious for drenching boaters and occasionally flipping boats. A road along the river accessed from Dove Creek is a popular spot to spend the day watching boaters negotiate the wild hydraulics created by the rapid’s “fangs”
Commercial boating companies are booking trips for the lower Dolores since the release was announced.
“Our tours are lining up, and we plan to run it as much as possible,” says David Moler, owner of Durango Rivertrippers & Adventure Tours.
The infrequency and unpredictability of flows below the dam can make it challenging to plan multiday trips, he said, “but we have comprised a list of customers who love the Dolores and we contact them when it runs. The river is beautiful with amazing geology and archaeology. It’s a great place to escape civilization.”
The Bureau of Land Management will have rangers assisting boaters on the river and directing traffic and put-ins and take-outs, said ranger David Saunders. The private access point at Slick Rock will be open with a small fee for parking. Portable toilets will be set up at the BLM’s Gypsum Valley put-in.
Boaters are encouraged to sign-in at kiosks set up at river access points and be patient in crowded areas.
“Help each other, pack out your trash, be safe and have a blast,” Saunders said.
Also this week, temperature suppression flows of 100 cfs were released from the dam to benefit the downstream native fishery. The strategy is to delay the spawning of the bluehead and flannelmouth suckers and roundtail chub until after the whitewater release.
Updates about the recreation flows below McPhee Dam will be posted on the Dolores Water Conservancy website under releases.