Congress considers a home-grown bill to protect the Dolores River
A piece of legislation before congress would preserve Southwest Colorado’s Dolores River as a National Conservation Area.
The proposed bill is the product of fifteen years of negotiations between stakeholders in Southwest Colorado.
Amber Clark was involved in the conversation as director of the Dolores River Boating Advocates, and remembers how they began.
“And I always laugh about it because, you know, we’re all sitting around the table, there’s a blizzard, it's the middle of winter, and we’re all kind of sizing each other up and trying to figure out what the other people at the table wanted,” said Clark.
“And what started happening was a little bit magical, in that people started getting over their own ego or whatever they had involved around [feeling like] ‘this is my stake in this,’ and [we] really started listening to each other and hearing each other.”
Jeff Widen of the Wilderness Society also remembers how delicate the negotiations could be.
“We developed a lot of respect for one another, and for one another’s values and livelihoods. And this process could have broken down a dozen times, literally, and it didn't, and the reason it didn't is that we all developed so much respect for each other, and the desire to work together to find a solution,” said Widen.
The process was contentious because of the presence of water, that ever precious and increasingly scarce resource.
“Water becomes a central focus because there’s a lot of fear that if you designate a National Conservation Area or a Scenic Area or a Wilderness that gives the federal government more power to claim water,” said Widen.
All of the water in McPhee Reservoir is already spoken for, it’s already owned by farms and other entities.
In some years, the river below the dam is a mere trickle.
Bob Gleason, who sits on the board of the Dolores River Boating Advocates, explains that the conservation bill respects those agricultural water rights.
But, he adds, it does not put more water into the river for boaters, fish, and wildlife.
“Farming and ranching are historic rights, and this bill is recognizing those rights,” said Gleason.
“The reason this bill has such a high probability of passing is because all the parties were brought to the table to talk about this thing, and they’re all getting the things they need out of it. So it's not just exclusively about the river, it's not so much about water rights, but it's about protecting the lands around the river. Its first step to protecting the river and in the future we can keep working on getting more of the water into the river and getting that recreational resource to a higher level than it is right now.”
Cattle rancher Al Heaton says that this conservation effort takes into account the humans who live and work alongside the river.
“In my opinion, we live in a world where a lot of people that hide behind the term environmentalist tend to dream of some world that’s imaginary and they fail to put the people factor in. They want to leave the people factor out and pretend we’re going to go back to this perfect something that was here before anyone knows what it was,” said Heaton.
“And of course I value the river. I've been here all my life and enjoy it. I've probably spent more time in the river canyon than just about anyone, because we grew up playing in it as kids. I’ve been in and out of it all my life.”
The grassroots coalition working on the NCA believes in it fully.
Widen says that although the process was long, everyone involved will stand behind the agreement.
“I think the process we've gone through with this legislation is about as good a process as I’ve ever seen,” said Widen.
“If other forces within congress try to make real changes to it we’ll go to bat for it and we'll stand together and say ‘No. This took a decade and half and it's a delicate balance and you need to respect that.’ I guarantee you no one around that table will say: 'Oh, so the house Natural Resources Committee is looking into making some changes, maybe I can get a little more of this now'.”
In July 2022 Senator Michael Bennet introduced the bill to congress, and Congresswomen Lauren Boebert followed shortly after, giving the effort a bipartisan seal.
Although discussions of the Dolores bill were ongoing into the final days of 2022's congressional session, it did not manage to pass.
However the bill still has a future.
Senator Bennet said in a written statement:
“Farmers and ranchers, conservation groups, and local and Tribal leaders spent nearly two decades hammering out a compromise to secure the future of the river.”
He goes on to say that while the bill was not passed this session, he will reintroduce it in future sessions “to protect the Dolores River Canyon and the communities that thrive from their connection to the river.”
As Al Heaton sees it, the people of Southwest Colorado have done their part.
The future of the Dolores is in the hands of congress now.
"It is, it is. It’s in the hands of congress. We’ll see,” said Heaton.
For those who worked so long to preserve the river, the wait continues.
This story from KOTO was shared with Aspen Public Radio via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.