DURANGO HERALD 5/29/14 McPhee puts a plug in Dolores

May 29, 2014

Focus of river controversy sharpens from the air

McPhee Dam, built in 1984, ensures that McPhee reservoir is swollen with water by preventing the water from flowing into the Dolores River. But activists say the dam essentially is choking the Dolores River’s downstream ecosystem. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

McPhee Dam, built in 1984, ensures that McPhee reservoir is swollen with water by preventing the water from flowing into the Dolores River. But activists say the dam essentially is choking the Dolores River’s downstream ecosystem.

McPhee Dam, built in 1984, ensures that McPhee reservoir is swollen with water by preventing the water from flowing into the Dolores River. But activists say the dam essentially is choking the Dolores River’s downstream ecosystem. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

McPhee Dam, built in 1984, ensures that McPhee reservoir is swollen with water by preventing the water from flowing into the Dolores River. But activists say the dam essentially is choking the Dolores River’s downstream ecosystem.

Five brave adults nestled themselves into a Cessna 210 for a chartered flight of the Dolores River. In terms of its tight quarters, sweat-polished leather seats and sharp corners, the plane was less reminiscent of a grand Boeing 777 than of a plucky golf cart with wings.

Though the riverbed is lush and wide, thanks to the McPhee Dam, the section of the Dolores River that flows east/northeast of the town of Dolores is parched of water, endangering three fish species and making kayaking and rafting nearly impossible. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Though the riverbed is lush and wide, thanks to the McPhee Dam, the section of the Dolores River that flows east/northeast of the town of Dolores is parched of water, endangering three fish species and making kayaking and rafting nearly impossible.

The pilot, Bruce Gordon, founder of Ecoflight, reassured a nervous reporter that he had clocked more than 11,000 hours in the air, and told everyone to buckle up before asking, suddenly worried, whether we all had access to sick bags.

“There’s nothing embarrassing about throwing up,” he said cheerfully. “Just do it in the bag. Otherwise you’ll make the pilot sick.”

Like a lot of environmentalist work, the advice was unglamorous but practical and important.

And with that, we took off from Animas Air Park in Durango.

Lee-Ann Hill, program coordinator for Dolores River Boating Advocates, peered out the window as we flew over mountains, Mancos and finally McPhee Dam to trace the path of the Dolores River.

“There!” she said.

From the air, we could not see the three fish species that have populated the river for millions of years – the roundtail chub, flannelmouth sucker and bluehead sucker – and now fight for their survival.

But from the sky, you could see what was killing them: the dam. From its headwaters in the San Miguel Mountains, the Dolores flows downstream until it crashes against the dam, forming a reservoir that provides irrigation water for Dolores and Montezuma counties and the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservation.

Beyond the dam – which from the sky looks like an enormous concrete bath plug – the Dolores’ riverbed – lush, green, but denied a steady flow of water – continues into the distance like scar tissue.

The Dolores

Before the flight, Hill said her group views rivers as “the lifeblood of western Colorado.”

More eloquently than inflammatory pamphlets or high rhetoric, the flight made her point: The Dolores River is clotted, and the blockage imperils the entire ecosystem.

In an interview back on land, Hill, joined by fellow activist Nathan Fey of American Whitewater, said the problem is that the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the dam, employs a “fill then spill” policy, allowing water to spill down the Dolores only when the reservoir is full.

As is, there’s too little water flowing from the dam to sustain the fish or recreational rafting and kayaking. In recent years, when the BLM has released “surplus” water into the river, the water’s cold temperature has created problems.

“If you’re a fish, it’s like jumping into an icebath,” Fey said. “We really want to see them try to maintain a natural hydrograph so that there’s an incremental increase in water flow from the dam, so that you don’t get this massive thermal shock.”

“What’s good for the fish is good for boaters,” Hill said.

“We want to move beyond ‘fill and spill,’” Fey said, advocating a model that would allow water to steadily trickle into the Dolores to support recreation and the threatened fish species.

Ecoflight

For readers and reporters, stories about environmental damage can be tricky: On the one hand, we understand the stakes – the survival of an endangered species, the value of clean water and our obligations as stewards of the Earth. But as newspaper accounts get entangled in impenetrable scientific data, in policy disagreements that unfold during long meetings and years-old report findings, the stakes become obscured, attention spans exhausted and solutions farther away.

In the last decade, much has been written about the controversies surrounding the Dolores River and the hundreds of people, companies, organizations, government agencies, recreationists and environmentalists who argue about how to save its fish species.

Gordon, the Ecoflight pilot, said flights can enlarge our focus from the granular to the big picture.

“When you’re up in the air, you have the ability to see something from a totally different perspective,” he said. “It just fits together.

“We are somewhat of an environmental air force for conservation groups. We offer support to groups who need an empowering or an inspiring way to compel diverse stakeholders or constituents to believe in an issue or take an issue seriously,” he said.

Jane Pargiter, vice president of Ecoflight, said the broad view from the air offers environmentalists a powerful means of storytelling.

“You find that what you’re seeing is fact or truth because it’s visually telling you the story, so the big picture is obvious,” she said. “We find it very effective in bringing people to have dialogues about something they might not have been willing to discuss prior to that.”

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