Archived Articles (in this area) Current Articles (in this area) All Articles

Dolores River (CO)

List ProjectsView Project

The Dolores River contains an impressive diversity of landscapes, from its pristine high-altitude headwaters in the Lizard Head Wilderness to the red sandstone canyons at the confluence with the Colorado River 230 miles downstream. The basin sustains rare riverside habitats, plant communities, and native fish and wildlife. Historically, the area’s economy has been based primarily upon mining and agricultural operations, the latter of which is dependant on significant diversion and delivery of water supplies from the Dolores River. Recently, the decline in traditional industries, coupled with a growing recreation economy, has resulted in significant social, economic, and environmental changes. Basin communities are challenged with finding ways to enhance their long-term economic and cultural well-being while preserving landscape health.

Over the past decade, paddlers have worked with local community groups and non-governmental organizations to preserve the Dolores River watershed and to enhance opportunities for long wilderness-quality river trips; second only to opportunities found on the Grand Canyon. Our members have worked closely with The Nature Conservancy and the San Miguel Watershed Coalition to support the development of Nature Preserves and conservation easements along the river corridor. Our community has volunteered hundreds of hours removing invasive species, advising conservation strategies, and developing recommendations for utilization of McPhee Reservoir releases to support river recreation.

Starting in 2003, American Whitewater participated in the collaborative development of the Dolores River Coalition’s campaign to protect and restore natural attributes of the Dolores River watershed, which included the use of conservation easements, increased instream flows, Wilderness, and Wild and Scenic Rivers protection. Unfortunately, the substantial investment of time and resources required to participate in broad-based coalition activities, presented a barrier to consistent and empowered recreation advocacy and representation.

Our members maintain that the quantity and quality of water necessary to sustain native species and recreation use along the Dolores River must be made available consistently and in perpetuity. Since 2004, private paddlers and commercial outfitters with an interest in future management of the Dolores River have voluntarily participated in the Dolores River Dialogue, a process with similar overarching goals as the Dolores River Coalition’s campaign.

Over the past 2 years, American Whitewater has received several requests for assistance from our affiliate clubs, volunteers, and partner organizations in the Dolores River Basin. Given the current staffing and success of our stewardship program, we are now in a position to meet this need. We have developed a strategy to empower key volunteers with the tools, resources, and leadership needed to build collaborative partnerships and engage in existing efforts to address multiple aspects of river health, including minimum flows for environmental and recreational needs, and reservoir spill utilization.

American Whitewater’s Strategy

Recreational Flow Needs Assessment – In 2010 American Whitewater will launch a progression of studies for the Dolores River below McPhee Reservoir, to identify the range of flows that provide acceptable recreation opportunities, and specific paddling experiences. Our stewardship staff will design and conduct an online survey consistent with industry-standard methodologies published by the National Park Service to collect data and information from private paddlers and commercial outfitters that describe recreation opportunities associated with specific flows. Building on literature reviews and survey data, we will identify the range of flows that provide diverse whitewater paddling opportunities below McPhee Dam.

Different paddling opportunities and challenges exist within ranges of flows on a spectrum: too low, minimal acceptable, technical, optimal, high challenge, and too high. Our staff will contract with hydrologists from Bishop Brogden Associates to synthesize our data with existing hydrological data to describe the quantity and frequency of paddling opportunities that currently exist within acceptable, technical, optimal, and high challenge flows. The types of recreational opportunities will be described by the relative number of “usable days” by month, within each flow range or “niche”. On rivers across the nation where paddling has been expressly protected, mitigated, or enhanced it has been done through cooperative efforts to achieve a specific number of days within these niches.

Recreation Flow Guides - Building on the data produced by our Recreational Flow Assessment, we will develop recreational flow guides that prescribe a target number of Usable Days distributed across the full range of flow-based boating experiences for the Dolores River. Our staff will work with the Colorado River Outfitters Association, volunteers, and members to develop monthly targets based on recreational user-preferences and empirical information, that help inform decision-makers of recreational flow needs. Working with our hydrologists, we will categorize flow guides by wet, typical and dry hydrologic conditions based on annual undepleted yield above McPhee Reservoir, and establish flow targets, based on usable days, that vary by each year type (i.e. more high flow opportunities in a wet year). American Whitewater’s Flow Guides will also create evaluative criteria for frequency, timing, and duration of flows for river recreation in each year type.

Achieve consensus on recreational flows and improve reservoir operations - To restore and establish permanent protection for dynamic flows in the Dolores River, we need buy-in and support for recreational flow targets from all major stakeholders in the basin. Paddlers understand the vital ecological roles that dynamic flow regimes play, and we are among the very few stakeholders that relish their power and defend flows for their conservation and social values. In-channel flows produce variable environmental conditions and recreational opportunities, and it is critical to establish consensus on how immediate and longterm effects on river conditions define biophysical habitats, and recreational experiences. In 2010, American Whitewater will work with The Nature Conservancy, the Dolores River Coalition, and the Dolores Project Biological Committee, to identify opportunities to defend or enhance environmental flow needs with recreational prescriptions. We will work to build greater support and understanding of river recreation and recreational water needs from local water users, the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company, Dolores Water Conservancy District, Southwest Water Conservation District and the Bureau of Reclamation. We will also engage our volunteers, affiliate clubs, commercial outfitters and outdoor retailers in building support for recreational flow needs within multiple local decision-making processes including:

  • Dolores River Dialogue, a collaborative group of stakeholders working to explore opportunities to manage McPhee Reservoir to improve downstream ecological conditions and the continued enjoyment of rafting and fishing, while honoring water rights, and protecting agricultural and municipal water supplies. The DRD has addressed geomorphology, riparian ecology and warm and cold water fisheries needs for the Dolores River below McPhee Reservoir. The integration of recreational flow needs information into DRD decision-making is critical to developing strategies for spill and base flow management and enhancement, as well as in-channel restoration efforts.
  • Lower Dolores River Corridor Management Plan Working Group, a stakeholder group working to provide recommendations for updating the Dolores Public Lands Office (Forest Service/BLM) 1990 Dolores River Corridor Management Plan. Its goals are to gather information, identify values worthy of protection in the planning area, formulate ideas for protection of the values, and make recommendations to the Dolores Public Lands Office. The working group is considering Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers designation as possible protective measures, and may provide opportunities to build support for flow targets.
  • Southwest Basin Roundtable Non-Consumptive Needs Assessment Committee, part of the Interbasin Compact Committee, working to identify critical recreational and environmental attributes of the Dolores basin. The NCNA will decide if these attributes require specific flow management recommendations. AW will work with the Basin Roundtable’s sub-committee to ensure that recreational flow targets are being used in the decision-making process.

In addition, we are working with local chambers, County commissioners, elected officials, and congressional staff to raise awareness of the flow-recreation relationship, and leverage public support to integrate recreational needs into better spill management.

Releases to Lower Dolores River certain in 2017.

02/17/2017 - by Nathan Fey

Cortez, Colorado - Last week, American Whitewater met with local water managers, fisheries biologists, an other interests in Dolores River water, to start negotiating releases from McPhee Dam - like we do every spring.  This year, things are looking very good for the Dolores...

article photo 1

Dolores River Flow Study (CO)

07/28/2010 - by Nathan Fey

American Whitewater has launched it's survey of Recreational Flow Preferrences for the Dolores River.

We have developed this survey so individuals can help American Whitewater decide what the future of the Dolores River and its tributaries will look like.

Your honest participation in this study will help American Whitewater develop new spill management proposals and instream flow guidelines that provide reliable and predictable boating opportunities into the future.


article photo 1

Working Group takes on future management of Lower Dolores River

12/18/2008 - by Nathan Fey

American Whitewater and various stakeholders have formed a Working Group in the Lower Dolores River Valley to update the 1990 US Bureau of Land Management’s Lower Dolores River Management Plan. In December 2008, the Working Group launched a year-long process to develop and evaluate alternatives to Wild and Scenic River designation for the Dolores below McPhee Dam.

The contacts below include staff and volunteers working on this project. Make sure you are logged in if you wish to join the group.

Title Name City
Kent Ford Durango CO Details...
Nathan Fey Longmont CO Details...

Associated News


Associated Projects

Dolores River (CO)

American Whitewater is working to conserve and restore a dynamic, healthy Dolores River by leveraging recreational water needs to enhance and support in-stream flows.

Lower Dolores Working Group (CO)

AW is working with a broad group of stakeholders to draft a new federal legislation that protects water and the iconic landscapes of the lower Dolores River.


Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Testimony (7/10/2023)

Testimony of American Whitewater for Public Lands, Forests, and Mining Subcommittee Legislative Hearing.

Join AW and support river stewardship nationwide!