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After nearly two decades of local discussion and collaboration on the Dolores River and at the request of Dolores, Montezuma, and San Miguel Counties, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the local cattle rancher, and conservation groups, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet introduced legislation to designate a National Conservation Area (NCA) for a portion of the Dolores River Corridor within the counties. This bill would protect over 68,000 acres of public lands in Colorado.
A proposed NCA spanning four counties (Montezuma, Dolores, San Miguel, and Montrose) along the Dolores River from below McPhee Dam to Bedrock has been discussed for many years. In 2008 the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management requested that the Dolores River Dialogue--a coalition of diverse interests in the region--convene a broad-based community group, which became the Lower Dolores Plan Working Group. The group was charged with studying pressing management issues in the Dolores River corridor from McPhee to Bedrock, including the possibility of a Wild and Scenic River federal designation. The working group, through consensus agreement, decided to explore the possibility of an NCA and appointed a Legislative Subcommittee, including counties, water managers, conservation groups, landowners, recreationists, energy companies, and staff from federal elected officials’ offices, to draft a legislative proposal for further vetting. Bennet's legislation is a result of this collaborative process.
The Dolores River has been found to be suitable for designation as a wild and scenic river by federal land managers. Many in the local water and agriculture communities have concerns about a wild and scenic designation because it would come with a federal reserved water right.
Local residents, working through the Lower Dolores Plan Working Group (described below) looked at various ways to permanently protect natural, historic, and cultural values by means other than a wild and scenic designation.
The group agreed on an NCA as the best way to accomplish this goal because National Conservation Areas (NCAs) can be tailored to meet specific local needs. Therefore, an NCA can protect the natural and recreational values of the Dolores River without harming water rights or agriculture.
The legislation was crafted over a decade by the Legislative Subcommittee of the Lower Dolores Plan Working Group, which was formed in 2008 as an offshoot of the Dolores River Dialogue.
The Lower Dolores Plan Working Group had about 50 participants and included representatives from counties with lands in the proposal, water interests, ranchers, boaters, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, conservationists, private landowners, mineral interests, and OHV users. The smaller Legislative Subcommittee represented all of the Working Group interests.
The legislation establishes a National Conservation Area (NCA) on BLM lands and a Special Management Area (SMA) on Forest Service lands in the area.
Because NCA’s and SMA’s are tailored to meet specific local needs, these two areas are effectively the same, just with different names preferred by each agency.
The Ponderosa Gorge Roadless Area (as shown on the map) will be managed to preserve its wilderness character.
It will have no effect on private water rights, instream flow rights, or McPhee project contracts obligations. It does not create a federal reserved water right, express or implied.
The Working Group agreed that ongoing discussions on management of releases and flows are best considered outside of the proposed legislation.
The current venue for this is the Dolores River Native Fish Monitoring and Recommendation Team, which is an informal, multi-disciplinary advisory body.
Valid existing mining, oil gas claims, and Department of Energy uranium lease tracts may continue to be developed.
The rest of the NCA/SMA is withdrawn, which means that new leasing is prohibited. If DOE uranium leases expire and are abandoned, they become part of the NCA/SMA.
The legislation itself does not directly affect boating flows.
It requires the Bureau of Reclamation to have meaningful collaboration with interested stakeholders regarding the management of already available flows below McPhee Reservoir.
The legislation requires land managers to manage the NCA/SMA for the benefit of a number of values, including native fish.
However, the legislation does not require changes in flow regimes.
The Secretary would be directed to have meaningful collaboration and consider recommendations from interested stakeholders regarding the management of available flows below McPhee Reservoir.
A wild and scenic river designation carries with it a new federal reserved water right for any unallocated water in a river segment.
Water and agricultural interests are concerned that a federal right could negatively affect existing private water rights.
That is why the Dolores River Working Group concluded that an NCA/SMA would permanently protect the natural values of the river corridor, without imposing any new water rights.
The Dolores River is currently listed as suitable for wild and scenic designation by federal land managers, which identify a number of Outstandingly Remarkable Values (ORVs) - including three native fish species, whitewater boating, cultural resources, geology, scenery, and ecology - and requires managers to protect the ORVs.
The legislation clearly identifies natural, scientific, and historical values of the river (including the ORVs identified above) and requires federal agencies to manage the area to protect and enhance those values.
New dams on the river and tributaries in the designated area will be prohibited.
Activities outside the NCA/SMA will not be allowed if they would have significant negative effects on NCA/SMA values.
Natural values are clearly identified and required to be protected.
The Ponderosa Gorge would be designated as a roadless area and managed to maintain its current remote and wild condition.
The legislation does not modify water flow or volume.
As noted elsewhere, the Secretary would be required to collaborate with and consider recommendations from interested stakeholders regarding the management of available flows below McPhee Reservoir.
This does not represent a change from current practice because the Dolores River Native Fish Monitoring and Recommendation Team currently provides recommendations for reservoir managers to consider.
The legislation requires the Secretary of the Interior and Secretary of Agriculture to draft a management plan for the NCA/SMA within 3 years of enactment.
The legislation creates an Advisory Council to provide input to the federal agencies in preparing the management plan. The Council must consist of key stakeholders in the region, including water interests, grazing, private landowners, conservationists, boaters, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and local counties.
The Management Plan will detail how the BLM and Forest Service shall manage the activities within the area to protect the values identified in the legislation while preserving pre-existing uses.