Science Notes

How Changing Climate and Populations Affect Management of the Dolores River

By Amorina Lee Martinez

March 2021

The Dolores River is a tributary of the Colorado River Watershed, originating in the San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado, and flowing mostly north to meet the Colorado River near Moab, Utah. McPhee Reservoir is the major storage component of the Dolores Project, which dams the Dolores River and diverts it to the neighboring San Juan watershed to the south and west for municipalities and extensive agriculture, including for the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation in southwest Colorado. McPhee Dam was built in 1984, and associated delivery canals which divert the reservoir water were completed by 2000. Ute tribal rights to water are one of the major factors which motivated the U.S. government to support the Dolores Project. 

The Dolores River. Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management.

Currently, the community dependent on the Dolores Project is working to negotiate legislation for a National Conservation Area (NCA) on a stretch of the Dolores River downstream of McPhee Dam. An NCA is a federal designation that can be locally designed to create river protections. It was initially supported by the community because it limits the heavy-handedness of federal legislation compared to Wild and Scenic River or Endangered Species designations. 

Some members of the community are concerned about dewatering of the Dolores River downstream from McPhee Reservoir and negative consequences for native fish and river recreation opportunities, hence efforts to establish an NCA. Since 2015, the community has not agreed on NCA legislation because water rights holders who depend on Dolores River water storage and diversion for their livelihoods are concerned the potential legislation would threaten those rights. Additionally, Southwest Colorado is experiencing increasingly arid conditions, with reduced annual snowpack resulting in dry soils. Aridity and community conflict are challenges for meeting multiple and diverse needs for water now and in the future. 

The history of changing populations in the Dolores Project region helps to give context to the current NCA negotiations and deliveries of water to the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation. This region was originally occupied by multiple tribal nations, including the Ute and Diné (Navajo) people. European colonialism, beginning with the Spanish and followed by American Westward expansion, forced Indigenous people off their original lands to make way for European interests in mining and agriculture. Colonial actions displaced Indigenous people and created the water infrastructure many of us depend on today; they also created negative consequences for river ecology.

While researching the Dolores Project during graduate school, I never encountered details on the history of the Weeminuche band of Ute people who now live on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation. This demonstrates to me the hidden nature of Indigenous history and Indigenous participation in natural resource decision-making. For example, my more recent research has made it clear that the Dolores Project would likely not exist without Ute water rights that the project is able to honor. Investigating Indigenous history before European arrival provides a deeper understanding of how lands and people have changed over time in Southwest Colorado. Indigenous people knew how to live in this arid and semi-arid land in a way that sustained them and the resources they depended upon for countless generations. Lessons from my research may contribute to solutions for sustaining water supplies in a drier future for the Colorado River Watershed.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: