Our River of Sorrow: Part III

Snaggletooth, climate change, and a dying river

This is the final installment in a three part series. Read Part I and Part II.

We stood on the shore looking out at the rushing water, yelling to make ourselves heard over Old Snaggle Tooth’s roar. 

“Hey, Jonny, you know what to do if you end up in the water, right?” D yelled. 

“Umm, yeah. I point my feet downstream and float until I get rescued?”

Eye rolls all around. 

“No, you dummy! You’ll get washed all the way down to Bedrock before anyone can pull you out and you’ll be dead way before that. Do you know how cold that water is? If—when—you flip, swim your ass off for the shore. And don’t stand up in the current. You could get your leg torn off.”

“Thanks for the reassurance,” I thought, as we walked back to the boats to throw our lives at the mercy of the water.

Marston and company developed a novel technique for rapid-running. Preston Walker would stand on the little boat’s stern whence he had a clear view of the rocks and waves ahead and call out directions to Marston, the oarsman. As one might expect, Walker was tossed into the drink on at least one occasion, sans life jacket. In Marston’s endnotes of his account, he writes: “We had one life preserver, but the water would have justified more.” Ya think? I chose not to reenact that foolishness and strapped my big orange life jacket on tightly and sat firmly on my bum with a death grip on a strap hooked to the front of the boat. The only instructions I shouted were, “Watch out for that wave! Don’t flip! We’re gonna die!!!” 

We didn’t. Flip, I mean, or die. G’s raft driving skills got us through the interminable rapid and wave-train that followed without incident and the current carried us quickly around the big bend to a sandy beach and perfect campsite. It took me a moment to recognize the place, but then it all came flooding back. This was my family’s favorite Dolores Canyon campsite when I was a kid. 

Although we came down once, maybe twice, to watch the spring river runs, usually we made the bumpy drive to the Dolores Canyon later in the summer, after the irrigators had purloined all of the river’s flow miles upstream. By late July or early August Snaggletooth was unrecognizable, a skeleton of a rapid, a jumble of massive boulders perched along a dry riverbed. Try as I might, I could not reconcile the dry version with the dangerous, water-covered one. Downstream, the rushing waters of spring had eaten down into the bedrock to leave deep pools that remained even when the current dried up. They were cool and so deep I couldn’t see the bottom, no matter how hard I peered into the glassy murk.

Usually we made the perilous drive high above the river and back down to the sandy beach where my friends and I found ourselves years later. The campsite and pool always seemed out of place to me. I guess it must have been the sandy beach, or the bottomless, still pool, or the thickly vegetated riverbank, shaded by the foliage of boxelder trees and willows.

My friends and I sat on the beach and drank beer and chatted lightly about the fugitives who apparently were still on the loose somewhere. We hadn’t gleaned any more details—for all we knew they were just some bank robbers running from the law—and thus were still oblivious to the horrors that had played out in the outside world while we were immersed in the world of the gorge, the river, the beach. We probably talked about where we might hole up if we were fugitives, and I imagine I probably said I’d hole up right where we were, on the banks of the Dolores, deep in a canyon, where—with sage and ponderosa and sandstone and sky as my companions—I’d be alone but never lonely.

As the last of the light slipped over the canyon walls high overhead, it brought out scars inflicted by an industrial sort of violence. The Dolores slices through the Uravan uranium belt, one of the nation’s most uranium-rich regions. Soon after Marston and friends came around the big bend, they heard the sharp report of dynamite and saw, high up on the south rim where I was looking, a cloud of dust emanating from a uranium mining operation. During their 1948 trip they encountered prospect holes, mining detritus, an inactive mill, and tributaries running thick with ochre-tinted silt. The uranium mining industry faltered in the mid-1980s, but the wounds remain in the form of roads spiderwebbing mesa tops and unreclaimed mines, and as radioactive material lurking in the beds of rivers and the bottom of Lake Powell. 

***

Despite the fact that irrigators diverted the entirety of the Dolores River’s summer flows into their canals, it often wasn’t enough to flood their hayfields into September so they could get a third or fourth cutting or to bring crops such as corn to maturity. And there wasn’t nearly enough water to go around to all of the arable land in the area, meaning Dove Creek-area farmers were limited to dryland crops. And so, in 1968, U.S. Rep. Wayne Aspinall, a Democrat from Colorado’s Western Slope, pushed through the Colorado River Basin Project Act, authorizing the construction of five water projects including the Dolores Project/McPhee Dam and an early form of the Animas-La Plata project that included a dam on the Animas above Silverton. 

The intensification of the Vietnam War postponed the dam-building frenzy. When Aspinall was voted out of office in 1972, the effort lost a bit more steam. The A-LP project was eventually dropped from the list (later to be revived). And the Dolores Project seemed to be the next to go when President Jimmy Carter included it on his “hit list” of water projected he thought didn’t deserve funding, to the delight of environmentalists fighting to keep the river wild. Meanwhile, in order to stave off further abuse, the lower Dolores River corridor was nominated for Wild and Scenic River status, which would have prohibited mining and oil and gas leasing, while also ensuring enough water would be left in the stream to keep the river “wild and scenic,” which is to say a lot more water than zero, which was the lower river’s flow from mid-summer into fall. 

Local farmers threw their considerable political heft behind the dam—and against the Wild and Scenic designation. They had a powerful ally: The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, which would receive a portion of the vast amounts of water to which they were entitled from the Dolores Project. With the help of Sen. Gary Hart, a Colorado Democrat, and driven by the pitbull-esque efforts of local water buffalo Sam Maynes, Carter’s resistance was overcome and the project was authorized. Construction of McPhee Dam began in 1979 and the reservoir began filling in 1983. 

The dam didn’t kill the river—not right away, at least. Rather it was like putting the river’s manic-depressive flows on lithium. The massive spring runoffs (by the time Marston reached the Colorado River, the Dolores was running at a monstrous 11,000 cfs) were tempered, but enough water still flowed downstream to scour beaches and preserve Snaggletooth’s whitewater snarl. And for the first time in a century the lower Dolores didn’t run dry in July. In fact, the year-round flows were enough to build and sustain a cold-water fishery for trout in the first dozen or so miles below the dam and a habitat for native fish below that. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe got both drinking water from the project as well as enough to irrigate a major agricultural enterprise near the toe of Ute Mountain, providing much needed economic development. The Town of Dove Creek receives water from the project as do the formerly dryland farmers, allowing them to diversify their crops. In some ways, and contrary to opponents’ fears, the dam had set the stage for a win-win-win situation.   

River flows at Bedrock show how the dam evened out the wildly fluctuating pre-dam flows on the lower Dolores, initially lowering the peaks but also keeping late summer flows at fish-sustaining levels.

Or so it seemed. The first hint of trouble came in the spring of 1990, when a dry winter prompted dam operators to release just 20 cubic feet per second into the lower Dolores. It was only barely better than nothing as far as fish were concerned and there was no boating nor enough flow to clean the riverbanks of tamarisk and Russian olive seedlings. River advocates rallied and began pushing for a new water management system to avoid a repeat. But ample winters returned and most years the river continued to flow. My friends and I had a lot less water than Marston during our trip, but plenty of water for rafting and flows continued to be fish-sustaining for the rest of that year.

We now know that the 1980s were an exceptionally wet decade in the Four Corners and that 1990 was a harbinger of the new, increasingly arid normal. Not long after I ran the Dolores, drought, then megadrought, then climate change-induced aridification set in, the upper Dolores River’s flows shrank, depleting McPhee Reservoir along with them. There simply isn’t enough water in the river to go around anymore, even with the reservoir holding back spring runoff. As is the case with the entire Colorado River system, the Dolores River’s waters are over-allocated, but to a much greater extent. 

During dry years all of the Dolores River water users lose something. Water in ditches is reduced, forcing farmers to fallow some or all of their fields, and sometimes the flows are cut off altogether come July or early August. The lower Dolores River is often the biggest loser, with minimal amounts of water released from the dam. The crisis climaxed in 2021 as the effects of two decades of dryness accumulated. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe received only about 10 percent of its usual irrigation water, forcing it to fallow fields; the Town of Dove Creek faced the prospect of losing its drinking water supply altogether; and releases from the dam for the lower river were cut to 10 cubic feet per second, a mere trickle. For several consecutive weeks in June and July the river gauge at Slickrock registered zero. Fish have died off, boating has been nearly non-existent most years, and the dearth of high spring water has allowed tamarisk and Russian olive to proliferate.

River lovers have stepped in to do what they can with tamarisk eradication campaigns and riparian restoration efforts. And, after it became clear that new Wild and Scenic pushes in 2007 and 2013 couldn’t get past political hurdles, stakeholders came together to work on a compromise, resulting in a proposal to create a national conservation area on 60 miles of river corridor below the dam, which would withdraw the land from new mining claims and oil and gas leases, bring more attention to the plight of this sorrowful and spectacular river, and possibly more funding to river restoration efforts. But it would do nothing to bring more water back to the river, and it would leave another 100 miles of the lower Dolores unprotected, in part because Mesa County commissioners withdrew support based on unfounded fears of losing their water. 

Maybe this winter will bring temporary relief in the form of massive, reservoir-filling snowfall. But in these climate changed, warmer and drier world, it seems unlikely, and anything less than a series of unusually huge winters won’t do enough to pull the river out of calamity. Clearly something has to give if the lower Dolores is to continue being a river: Alfalfa farmers need to switch to less water-intensive crops, like pinto beans; ditches will have to be lined and piped to reduce leakage and irrigation (as much as it breaks my heart to lose the ditch-side ecosystems leakage provides); and farmers will have to accept less water and become more efficient. Getting any of that to happen won’t be easy.

My friends and I spent the final stretch of our 1998 trip drifting at a leisurely pace, letting the current pull us along and watching the canyon walls for signs of bighorn sheep or alcoves containing ancient dwellings. We were blissfully oblivious, both of the outside world and the happenings at that moment, and of the future of the river on which we floated—a river that has almost ceased to be a river at all. And we had no idea whatsoever that one day the opportunity to float the lower Dolores might dry up altogether.

POSTSCRIPT

As we pulled into the Slickrock takeout, we were confronted by a circus. A news helicopter landed just as we dragged the raft up to shore, and B, always the ham, approached the cameras asking: “Do the bank robbers look kind of like us?” Maybe a reporter asked us a question or two. If so, I imagine we looked a bit like deer in the headlights who didn’t understand what they were talking about. Things just got stranger on the drive home. Just outside Egnar we topped a hill and encountered a roadblock, manned by jittery sheriff deputies that looked no older than 18, their rifles aimed directly at our heads. After some questioning and a cursory search of the gear, they let us pass. 

We flipped through the radio. Every station had pre-empted regular programming to talk about the fugitives. Two men from Durango and one from Dove Creek had stolen a water truck from the gas patch near Ignacio, Colorado. Their motive was (and remains) unclear: Some people think they may have wanted to use it to rob the vault at the Ute Mountain Ute casino; others that they were planning to build a bomb to blow up a dam or something else. When they got pulled over outside of Cortez the three got out of the truck and, with automatic weapons, riddled the car and the Colorado State Trooper with bullets, killing him.

They abandoned the water truck, stole a flatbed pickup, and led law enforcement on a lengthy pursuit during which they shot and wounded more cops before ditching the truck near Cahone, not far from where we had put onto the river, thus launching the largest manhunt in Four Corners Country history.