Federal and state protection measures for the Lower Dolores River were sharply criticized by local officials Thursday during a regional water meeting in Cortez.
But public-land agencies and the Colorado Water Conservation board defended the decisions as part of their job to inventory special waterways and ensure adequate flows on the river.
New management plans by the BLM and Forest Service upgrade the status of two native fish, and list new sections of the river as "preliminarily suitable" for a Wild and Scenic designation.
Roy Smith, a BLM water specialist, said the suitability status for the Lower Dolores from the dam to Bedrock has been in place since a 1976, and the special status was reaffirmed in a recently released public-lands management plan.
"It qualifies because below the dam, the lower Dolores is a free-flowing stream that has outstandingly remarkable values," he said. "A common misconception is that suitability means we can wave a wand and make it Wild and Scenic, but that is not true. That takes congressional action."
The 1976 suitability study noted that the Dolores is compatible with a Wild and Scenic designation, and "McPhee dam will enhance and complement such designation."
Oustandingly Remarkable Values, known as ORVs, are obscure and sometimes controversial assessments that identify river-related natural values. They are an indication that a river could qualify as a Wild and Scenic River in the future. In the meantime, their natural values are protected in management plans.
In their recent management plan, the BLM and Forest Service upped the ante, adding the bluehead and flannelmouth suckers to ORV standard list, which already includes the bonytail chub.
The Colorado Water Conservation board also believes native fish on the river deserve additional help. They propose to issue a new in-stream flow requirement for a 34-mile section of the river from the confluence with the San Miguel River to the Gateway community.
Ted Kowalski, a Water Conservation Board water resource specialist, said the new in-stream flow is proposed to improve habitat conditions for native fish.
"In-stream flows are designed to protect the natural hydrographs on the river, and we feel they are better than top-down river management from the federal side," Kowalski said. "The proposed in-stream flows on that section of the Dolores are timed to accommodate spawning needs for native fish."
Required peak flows reach 900 cfs during spring runoff, and then taper off. Most of the water would be provided by the San Miguel River, an upstream tributary.
"If in-stream flows are not being met, it would be investigated to find out why the water is not there, or if it is being improperly diverted elsewhere," said Linda Bassi, section chief for CWCB. "It could result in a call upriver to satisfy downstream in-stream flow requirements."
The Dolores Water Conservation Board and the Southwestern Water Conservation board objected to the changes, fearing the move could force more water to be released downstream. They have filed appeals and protests to stop them.
Even the preliminary Wild and Scenic status on the Dolores is strongly opposed by McPhee Reservoir operators because if officially designated, Wild and Scenic rivers come with a federally reserved water right, which would also force more water to be released from the dam.
Jeff Kane, an attorney representing SWCD, said adding two native fish as ORVs was unexpected and unfair to a local collaborative process working to identify and protect native fish needs.
"They were not in the draft proposal. The eleventh-hour finding struck the community and put them on edge," he said.
Barry Spear, an attorney representing DWCD, said the additional in-stream flow requirements and suitability designations will impede water development.
"We found that in-stream flows you are proposing are not imposed on any other BLM or forest in the state. Is this a new precedent? We feel like Southwest Colorado is being singled out," Spear said.
"Where would the water come from?" asked Dolores County commissioner Doug Stowe. "We are in a drought."
Accusations that federal agencies and the CWCB hijacked a 10-year-long, grass-roots effort to protect the Dolores were expressed at the meeting, which was attended by 80 local and regional officials.
"From a water manager perspective, the changes feel like a full-court press on McPhee reservoir," said Mike Preston, DWCD manager.
A diverse stakeholder group, the Dolores River Working Group, is proposing to make the Lower Dolores River into a National Conservation Area through future legislation. As part of the deal, suitability status for Wild and Scenic on the Lower Dolores River would be dropped.
"It is still worthwhile to get our proposal out there," said Amber Kelley, Dolores River coordinator for the San Juan Citizen's Alliance. "We should continue to move forward in our collaborative effort despite the concerns about the BLM changes."