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The Return of Dolores River Rafting

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For the first time in over a decade, the Dolores River near Cortez in southwest Colorado received consistent flow releases from McPhee Reservoir — offering access to rafters from April to early June 2017. Winding through slick rock canyons, remote wilderness and towering ponderosa forests, the Dolores River reaches terrain rarely touched by humans. Deemed to be one of the mightiest whitewater rivers in the West, the Dolores River drops over 6,500 vertical feet over 50 miles.

The Dolores is a classic emblem of the struggle to balance agriculture and recreation in the West. For many years the droughts in Colorado in conjunction with farmers using the water as a means of irrigation has prohibited any ability to run this river, which has been considered “dead.” Since the water levels were dangerously low, the Dolores River was largely inaccessible to boaters. The fact that snowpack was finally high enough to allow for releases from McPhee Reservoir this year is rare and exciting news.

Since the 1800s, there have been constant battles between environmentalists and farmer regarding what the precious river water should be used for. Environmentalists and rafters are in favor of letting the water run its course naturally, while those with a vested interest in agriculture and forestry want to keep the water in the region rather than flowing out of state.

As a result, the McPhee Dam has held back the water flow to the river and diverted it to irrigate farms in Montezuma Valley and Ute Mountain Indian Reservation since 1984. Farmers in this area pushed hard to allow McPhee Dam to be used for their irrigation purposes. In their eyes, water not used is water wasted, and with such an arid climate, the water is a valuable resource for agriculture in the southwest.

The river ran at full blast earlier this summer with a flow of over 800 cubic feet per second for more than 60 days. This was not only beneficial for boaters and rafting companies but also a great opportunity for the river to restore its native habitat. More than 255,000 acre-feet of water was released into the Dolores River, making it a raging whitewater adventure with powerful Class IV rapids. Guides were thrilled to take rafters out on the river this summer — and hope they can do so again next year!

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