McPhee Reservoir rebounded from a drought, a long-awaited rafting season thrilled locals, new businesses opened, and a slate of new town board members earned seats. In August, an overdose shook the town. In November, a young student’s suicide brought a community together, in search for answers.
The whitewater party returns to DoloresProbably the high point of the year came in June, when a whitewater release burst through the gates of McPhee Dam, sending hundreds of ecstatic boaters into the rarely seen red-rock canyons of the Lower Dolores River.
It was the first time since 2011 that runoff has exceeded the capacity of McPhee Reservoir, triggering a required whitewater release. Winter snowpack and seasonal rains signaled a crack in the armor of a lingering drought. Startled wildlife, unaccustomed to a human presence in the canyon for several years, greeted the boaters. River otters swam among rafts, and a herd of desert bighorn sheep stared down from the cliffs at the commotion of the Pumphouse boat ramp. There were many bear sightings, including mothers with cubs. A significant new river hazard at mile-marker 17.2 was identified.
Farther downstream at the mighty Snaggletooth Rapid, dozens of onlookers enjoyed watching boaters go through the Class IV whitewater. People helped boaters get unstuck, and crowds applauded with excitement when a standup paddle boarder successfully navigated Snaggletooth Rapid, an act of sheer bravery and amazing balance.
“The river has a wild feel when there is a release,” said boater Jen Stark. “It is healthy for it and offers opportunity for people to explore a beautiful canyon.”
Youths deaths break hearts, build resolveIn August, the Dolores community suffered tragedy when a well-known 18-year-old died from a drug overdose. Chance Davidson had just returned home from a six-week rehab session when he relapsed and was found unresponsive by his mother in the family’s guest house. The death triggered community awareness of the problems of drug addiction and the need to address it. The Davidson family opened up to The Journal about Chase’s struggles, accomplishments, and efforts to get clean.
Then in November, the Dolores community suffered another tragic loss when an elementary student took her own life.
The death was a shock to the community and prompted discussions of child mental health issues and bullying. The parents reported that the child had been bullied, which led to a renewed focus on the issue in schools. During the crisis, the Dolores School district flooded the campus for several weeks with up to 42 counselors and mental health specialists to help students, teachers and parents. The death was one of two juvenile suicides this fall in Montezuma County. The other was a child from the Cortez area.
Three mental health forums were held in November and December to educate the community about mental health issues, prevent bullying and provide resources. Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin, the girl’s grandfather, pledged to improve mental health services at area schools. He suggested more classes on youth behavior and coping skills, and more parent participation in the schools “every day, not just during special events. We all need to step up,” he said.
Judge overturns closure of landmark hotelIn July, District Court Judge Todd Plewe ruled that the town of Dolores erred in its action to close down the Rio Grand Southern Hotel in March 2015.
Plewe ruled that the notice served on owner Susie Sieber for code violations “was inadequate and failed to afford (her) procedural due process.” He reversed the Dolores Board of Appeals’ decision in May 2015 that upheld the town’s action to close the hotel because of code violations.
“It’s been a tough experience, and it made nine people homeless,” said hotel owner Sieber. “There were some electrical violations, but they were minor, and I had an electrician upgrade it all within a couple of days.”
In the 12-page ruling, Plewe wrote that while the appeals board decision upholding the town’s action to close the property is “supported by competent evidence,” proper notice was not given, making the action invalid. He wrote that the notice attachments “fail to include any citation to a code or any specific code provision. Therefore, it is unknown what code(s) the town is relying on or what specific sections of those code(s) have been violated, and likewise, how those violations could be corrected.”
McPhee Overlook trail opensIn September, the nonmotorized McPhee Overlook Trail on the west end of town opened for hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians.
The trail begins in Dolores adjacent to the graveyard, switchbacks up the mesa, then parallels the rim above McPhee Reservoir for five miles to the House Creek campground. Along the way are spectacular views of the lake and surrounding mountains. The Southwest Youth Conservation Corp, San Juan National Forest crews and volunteers have been working on the trail all summer. The trail connects to the Bean Canyon connector trail near House Creek, creating a convenient link to the vast Boggy Draw trail network from town.
New town board takes office in springIn an April election, Dolores voted in five candidates and a new mayor. Isabel Boyce (108 votes), James Biard (102 votes), Robert Dobry (100 votes), Duvall Truelsen (97 votes), and write-in candidate Trevor Ince (31 votes) all won board seats. New Mayor Santiago Lopez, who ran unopposed, garnered 131 votes.
Dobry and Ince were the newest board members, as the other candidates had been serving as appointed members. Ince, 23, is a carpenter at Rustic Style de Dolores Furniture, and Dobry, 35, is director of corporate support at KSJD radio station. He also serves on the Dolores Planning and Zoning commission.
‘River of Sorrows’ film is releasedIn January, the Dolores River Boating Advocates released “River of Sorrows,” a documentary film produced by Rig to Flip. Nearly 300 people packed the Dolores Community Center for the premiere of the 45-minute film about the demands on Dolores River. The film was made possible in part by a $12,000 grant from Patagonia.
The well-received documentary featured interviews with local boaters, farmers, fish biologists, anglers and water professionals talking about their favorite waterway.
“It’s a complex story, and we realized it was not necessarily all in the river, it needed to be told on a landscape-wide level,” said filmmaker Cody Perry. “Running the Dolores has become more of a mythical run, it is not known anymore.”
Historic video of rafters battling huge pre-McPhee whitewater on the renown Snaggletooth rapid drew applause and hollering from the boating community. The film focused on the competing interests from different groups and users, but struck a balanced tone. “We did not want to point fingers, rather we set out to present the different perspectives and stories of people who love and depend on the river,” said Josh Munson, of DRBA.
Lake access limited to guard against musselTo prevent a damaging mussel infestation in McPhee reservoir, this fall managers decided to limit lake access to only when there are boat inspectors. The new 2017 plan restricts access to the McPhee and House Creek ramps because there is not enough funding for boat inspections all the time. The ramps will be shut with locked gates when the inspection stations are closed. Previously boats could launch unchecked after the inspection stations were closed because there were no gates. The Dolores Water Conservancy District, which manages irrigation on the lake, says McPhee is considered high risk for a quagga mussel invasion because of its proximity to Lake Powell, which has been infected by the non-native species. The mussels attach in layers to irrigation and municipal infrastructure, causing damage and annual expense to remove. In 2017, the McPhee boat ramp will be open with inspectors from May 1 to Sept. 27, seven days per week from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., and from Sept. 28 to Oct. 31 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days per week. The House Creek boat ramp will only be open four days per week during the boating season. From May 1 to Sept. 27, the House Creek ramp will be open Thursday through Sunday from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Between Sept. 28 and Oct. 31, it will be open Thursday through Sunday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Recreation businesses in Dolores say the limited access will hurt their livelihood. David Smith, owner of McPhee Boat Rentals in Dolores, said he understands why lake managers want to prevent mussels but called for more government effort to staff the House Creek ramp with inspectors seven days per week.
“I was planning on expanding operations, but this plan would make that difficult,” he said. “It will have a negative impact on the House Creek campground because, if you can’t launch your boat when you want, why go?”
Smelly and deadly McPhee ponds repairedThe McPhee reservoir retainment ponds were repaired in October after years of neglect that led to a smelly algae bloom and fish kill.
The two-pond system is designed to prevent mudflats from forming on the outskirts of Dolores when the reservoir is low. Separated by dikes, they also provide sport fishing with convenient access for the public. The ponds and their supply inlet from the Dolores River channel were first installed when McPhee was completed in the 1980s, but fell into disrepair several years ago.
Boulders positioned to pool river water into the pipe had sloughed away, leaving the headgate above water level. In years of normal snowpack, runoff fills the reservoir, including the two ponds and river channel up to the edge of Joe Rowell Park.
But when a lingering drought began in 2002, the reservoir remained below normal for many years, and the ponds were left without a fresh supply of water because of the broken system. They became stagnant, triggering an algae bloom and a noticeable odor. In March, the problem worsened when a severe lack of dissolved oxygen in the ponds caused a significant fish kill, adding to the stench and creating an eyesore.
When the problem was brought to the attention to reservoir managers by The Journal and Dolores resident Jim Koenig, it was revealed the headgate for the ponds was in a jurisdictional no-man’s land. Several state and federal agencies scrambled to determine who is legally responsible, and that issue is still unresolved. But in October, the local office of the Bureau of Reclamation stepped up to repair the forgotten headgate, and fresh water again flows into the ponds when the reservoir is low.
Two wildfires cloud the horizonOn June 18, a wildfire erupted in the Sage Hen area of McPhee Reservoir, and was put out within three days. The fire burned 180 acres of private, county, and federal lands and cost $292,618 to fight, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The Montezuma County sheriff reported that a property owner on County Road X admitted he accidentally started the wildfire during a controlled burn of weeds on his property. Air tankers and a helicopter assisted fire crews on the ground during the fast moving fire.
Then on June 21, lightning started a small wildfire in the Long Draw area south of Forest Road 532 east of the Dolores-Norwood Road in Dolores County. San Juan National Forest officials intentionally fueled the fire to create a firebreak for future fires and improve grazing conditions.
The fire, which was detected from the Bench Mark Lookout station, grew to 2,142 acres after Dolores District ranger Derek Padilla expanded it to reduce built-up vegetative litter on the forest floor.
“It was a successful, low-intensity surface fire that cleaned up accumulated fuels in an area that had not seen fire in 40 to 50 years,” said fire manager Patrick Seekins.
To help the fire burn as planned, the Forest Service started fires in a contained area and deployed a helicopter that dropped pingpong-size balls filled with antifreeze and glycol that ignited when they hit the ground. It dropped 1,400 balls within a 2,000-acre area, officials said.
Not in the least ...The Dolores Schools started a community Arts Guild, a snowbike trail was added north of town, resident Vernon Bud Walker Jr. was named Cattleman of the Year, and several businesses opened including Chavalitos, Montezuma Restaurant, the Family Dollar, The Calico, The Yoga House, Docs Outdoor Rentals, and Red Tail Creations.