*This op-ed first appeared in the Durango Herald
The beautiful, red rock Dolores River Canyon is seeing big spring and early summer runoff of which river-runners have long dreamt, thanks to unusually high seasonal snowpack. This year’s melt is swelling the Dolores River to levels not seen in years. As a result, the Dolores Water Conservancy District and the Bureau of Reclamation – the agencies that run McPhee Dam – have been releasing enough water to support 40 to 60 days of water levels high enough to support boating through this weekend. A sustained boating season has attracted hundreds of boaters from all over the region, pumping much-needed dollars into local businesses.
In recent years, boating opportunities have been scarce on the Dolores. Last spring’s small managed release of water from McPhee Dam was the first since 2011, and water levels to support boating lasted only a handful of days. Although a run of dry years has contributed to the problem, the paucity of boating opportunities over the last couple decades is primarily the result of the construction of McPhee Dam in the 1980s. Before then, the river provided enough water for boating nearly every year, but now, most years don’t have any boating opportunities at all.
In addition, the fish populations in the Dolores have been severely impacted because of the dam. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has observed that the Dolores’ fish community is “highly stressed” because of the limited amount of habitat caused by low water flows. Many native fish species also need robust spring flows to trigger healthy reproduction. The cold water trout fishery below McPhee also needs reliable flows to provide adequate fishing opportunities.
These low levels of water are a concern not just for fisherman and boaters but for all Colorado residents who care about the health of our rivers. In a 2017 Western States Survey, 65 percent of Coloradans surveyed think that loss of habitat for fish and wildlife is a “serious” problem, and when asked specifically about low levels of water in rivers, 71 percent of respondents rated that problem as “serious.”
While the impact to fish, wildlife and recreation is critical to address, it is important to recognize McPhee Dam has important benefits as well. The dam helps irrigate area farms. It also provides much-needed municipal water to these communities. Clearly, we as Coloradans need to find solutions that meet the diverse water needs of our agriculture, communities, recreation, and fish and wildlife.
In years when snowpack is high, there may be enough water to satisfy every important use of the river. But what about the dry years? During drought, can we simultaneously have better boating opportunities, meet water needs, sustain fish, support agriculture and buoy recreational economies?
Increasingly, water leaders recognize that we can meet all of these needs through improved water efficiency, water recycling and greater water market flexibility. In particular, using a water market could help those who love to boat and fish on the Dolores as well as the businesses that benefit from this recreational economy.
A water market is as simple as supply and demand: let those who would benefit from more water in the river lease water from farmers who have water rights and who could use the income. Markets also encourage efficiency and provide a financial incentive to conserve. McPhee Dam’s planners anticipated voluntary water sales between willing sellers and buyers and even created a water “account” to hold leased water.
It is time for local stakeholders to embrace the potential of water markets. These voluntary transactions can provide financial returns to farmers and other users, while protecting their traditional water rights. In this way, water becomes another money-making “crop” that keeps agricultural lands in production over the long term.
I encourage all the stakeholders to explore flexible water markets. Stakeholders in the Dolores valley in particular should consider cooperative deals like the pilot project recently launched in the Grand Valley, where local farmers are being paid to reduce their water use to keep more water flowing in the Colorado River to benefit fish and recreation. These markets can raise all boats, not just in the good years like this one, but in the dry years ahead.