The Dolores River is having a moment.
It’s a moment that advocates are hoping will grow into something more permanent in the form of protections for the waterway and the corridor it travels.
Last year bipartisan backing, from U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, both Colorado Democrats, and U.S. Reps. Lauren Boebert, Ken Buck and Doug Lamborn, all Republicans, coalesced behind a bill to provide new federal management protections for 68,000 acres of the river corridor in Dolores, Montezuma and San Miguel counties. While that measure has broad backing, some conservationists also want to see protections for the river corridor go further, perhaps via creation of a national monument that would continue all the way downstream past Gateway to where the river reaches Utah.
The river also is the subject of a new documentary called “The River of Sorrows,” which gets its title from the river’s name in Spanish. It will be shown tonight at the Mesa Theater in Grand Junction, followed by a panel discussion. The film focuses on the river and the challenges and issues surrounding it. About the biggest challenge is its struggle to be a river at all sometimes due to low flows, as depicted by the film’s documenting of two pack-rafters floating and often hiking the nearly dry waterway last year.
And then there is the matter of what’s happening on the Dolores River this year, when it is proving eminently boatable for a change due to high flows resulting from western Colorado’s plentiful snowpack accumulations. The runoff-swollen river is highlighting both what the river can be and what it too often isn’t.
“Having a flow this year I thought was really serendipitous to help kind of gather all these threads” about the river and issues surrounding it, said Scott Braden, director of the Colorado Wildland Project, based in Grand Junction.
He and his wife floated the river in western Montrose County a few weeks ago, and he said it was incredible seeing the high volume of water and others enjoying a river that they sometimes have to wait years for water high enough to float.
“It’s been pretty magical to see it run this year after years of drought, and to know it’s restoring the landscape, helping with native fish populations and more. It’s been a really special year and I’m grateful that it’s been able to help focus public attention on the river and the history of people trying to protect the river and the surrounding public lands.”
Braden’s group is part of a coalition of conservation groups seeking to protect the Dolores River canyon country. It supported the filmmaking production company Rig to Flip in its making of “The River of Sorrows.”
Rig to Flip’s Cody Perry said the project was physically one of the hardest things he’d ever done as a filmmaker. The film crew followed pack-rafters Brett Davis and Annie Bussell as the two tried to float what started out as a trickle of water in the river just below McPhee Reservoir near Dolores, and make it all the way to the Colorado River.
“I’m not going to give everything away but it was a slog. It wasn’t easy,” Perry said.
He said the pack-rafters and filmmakers spent a lot of time alternating between paddling pools of water and walking stretches that were too dry, sometimes able to follow old uranium mining or pack roads or game trails, and sometimes forced to follow the river channel itself.
Both the reservoir and climate change play roles in the river’s low flows some years. Perry said that only seven of the last 20 years have there been flows beneficial to the environment and recreation in the river below the dam. He said the reservoir water project “does a lot for the surrounding communities,” including for agricultural and municipal purposes, but it also has been plagued by depleting flows into the reservoir.
It’s a case of “western water policy crashing up against the reality of a diminishing water supply,” Perry said.
He thinks the high flows this year “should drive home the point harder in my mind.”
“It takes such an epic, record-breaking kind of year for the (reservoir) project to not only meet all its obligations but have the type of flows to go beneath the dam to allow it to resemble a functioning river.”
Perry said the film includes interviews with a range of people, with tribal, dam-operator, Bureau of Reclamation and other perspectives, including those of Bennet, a main backer of the Dolores River bill.
Braden and some other conservationists support the bill but think the entire river corridor below the reservoir in Colorado merits such protections. The Colorado Wildlands Project commissioned a poll with Keating Research that involved 750 voters in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District. About seven in 10 voters polled support protecting the Dolores River canyon country as a national monument, it found.