Dry Run on the River of Sorrows

The Dolores used to be one of the mightiest whitewater rivers in the West. Then politics and dry weather got in the way. But neither drought nor dam nor partisan bickering can stop Mark Sundeen from floating (and walking and driving) the entire course of the Rio de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores.

End of the run: the depleted current of the Dolores slides near Bedrock, in southern Colorado.     Photo: James Fee

Rafting the Dolores River

After the gold rush: tailing ponds from abandoned mining operations in Rico, Colorado, just a few yards from the Dolores

Rafting the Dolores River

Unboatable days: a lonely picnic area near the mining town of Bedrock

Rafting the Dolores River

Flatwater detour: One of several irrigation canals fed by McPhee Reservoir, downriver from the town of Dolores; the water is diverted to alfalfa fields around Cortez, Colorado.

Rafting the Dolores River

Bath from hell: a natural sulfurous hot spring bubbles up adjacent to the Dolores, near its headwaters in Colorado's San Juan Mountains.

Rafting the Dolores River

The sound of mountain water: Snaggletooth Rapid, downstream from McPhee Dam, was once a Class IV; it hasn't been runnable since 1999.

Wind gusts swept over the government-regulation picnic tables and, from inside a distant outhouse, something rattled. A sign optimistically announcing "Rules for River Runners" flexed in the wind, lonely and unread.

A black cat appeared and wandered toward me, trying to get in my truck. Even though it was April, when rafting usually begins on Colorado's Dolores River, the Bradfield Bridge launch was empty.

In theory, a ten-day float on the Dolores is one of America's great river trips. By the time it reaches its confluence with the Colorado River—171 miles in all—the Class IV rapids, awesome canyons, and solitude put the Dolores up there with the Grand Canyon and the Middle Fork of the Salmon.

Eleven years ago, the Dolores was my first canyon, part of a guide-training course that kicked off right here, about 12 miles west of McPhee Dam. I remember paddling—in a blizzard, terrified—down Class IV Snaggletooth Rapid, where the cold, green water tends to wrap rafts around Snag Rock. The other trainees ran the rapid again and again; I pitched a tent and crawled into my sleeping bag. That I flunked the course is beside the point. What mattered was that the Dolores River was the start of a long stint as a river guide, and now I wanted to run it again.

But as the stray cat followed me from the truck, I saw only a delicate stream bubbling between piles of pebbles. The Dolores could not float a boat.

The cat looked at me with scorn, as if to say, What did you expect? It was 2003, the fourth year of one of the worst droughts in the recorded history of Colorado, the sort of conditions that must have sent the Anasazi packing. Crops were withering, cattle were dying, and the river that once sculpted canyons was a trickle. Almost every drop behind the dam was allocated, and there would be no releases for river runners. A paltry 17 cubic feet of water per second was dribbling out of McPhee Reservoir that day, about 2 percent of what's required for a raft, and 8 percent of what a kayak needs. This once bustling boat ramp was now a place where people abandoned their pets.

I distracted the animal with a handful of dog chow, crept to my truck, and spun out of there. I wasn't afraid of a black cat in my path. I had a journey to complete.

I was going to run the Dolores River, come hell or, um, low water.

WHEN IS A RIVER DEAD? For river runners, the Dolores has been dead since the drought struck in 2000. The last time Snaggletooth saw runnable water was in the fall of 1999, when a freak rainstorm forced a sudden release from McPhee Dam. The Dolores hit bottom the summer of 2002, never flowing at more than ankle depth at the gauging station in the town of Bedrock and dropping, at one point, to a dismal low of one cubic foot per second.

"The reason you don't hear a lot about the Dolores River is because most people already consider it dead," says John Weisheit, of Living Rivers, a nonprofit based in Moab, Utah, that works to decommission dams and restore rivers. Whether the dehydration that's ravaged the Dolores and rivers all over the West is caused by natural cycles of drought or by human overallocation is the subject of endless debate.

Historically, peak season on the Rio de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores—the "River of Our Lady of Sorrows"—was from April to June. Originating in the snowy granite peaks near Telluride, Colorado, the river tumbles 6,500 vertical feet in about 50 miles, through aspen and spruce gorges, before making a U-turn at the town of Dolores and rambling northwest into Utah. On average, each year has had 55 days of optimum boatable flows, but since 1984 the Dolores has gone slack behind McPhee Dam, where its water waits to be diverted to irrigate farms in Colorado's Montezuma Valley and the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation, and to quench the thirst of about 15,000 people in towns like Cortez and Dove Creek. Now, a well-timed launch in a wet year can still make for a great river trip, but boatable days have dropped by more than half.

When debating the health of the Dolores, it helps to know what it was like before humankind butted in. But this gets tricky. Man's large-scale wrangling of the river predates precise flow gauges, rafting, and even the idea that a river should be "alive."

In 1887, the Montezuma Water Company claimed the Dolores water and dug a canal near where McPhee Reservoir is today. Farmland blossomed in Colorado's southwesternmost corner, and Cortez was founded. Come July and August, with crops drinking thirstily from the canal, the riverbed below the diversion often dried up completely. But during the dramatic spring snowmelt, thousands of acre-feet escaped downriver. This runoff was a delight to rafters, who began floating the river in the 1950s, but an outrage to farmers. Water not used, according to the old western mentality, is water wasted.

And so began the battle between two groups that both call themselves conservationists. Environmentalists wanted to conserve the water in its natural course; irrigators wanted to keep it from going to waste.

The local bickering was mostly background noise to the real battle for the Dolores—and all western rivers—being fought in the U.S. Congress. In 1968, 12-term Colorado congressman Wayne Aspinall emerged from the haggling with five new Colorado River Basin projects in his district, including the Dolores Project, which would balloon into a half-billion-dollar boondoggle crowned by McPhee Dam. A decade later, President Carter deemed the project a piece of pork and tried to block it, but after a mutiny within the Democratic party, the bulldozers went forward. The project was completed in 2000.

By then, drought had overridden everybody: McPhee irrigators were receiving less than half of their annual allocation and dam releases had dropped below 20 cubic feet per second. This year, snowpack in the surrounding mountains looked more promising, but the spring melt won't be enough to alleviate the crisis, and no one is certain when rafting releases, which have been all but shut down for the past four years, will resume.

EXPEDITIONS PLANNED from my trailer home in Moab, Utah, tend to be slipshod and half-assed, and this drought descent of the Dolores would be no exception. On a map, I split the river into six sections, and over the next six weeks I scanned the hourly flow updates on the Internet, kayak strapped atop the truck, ready to deploy at a moment's notice. When a certain section rose to where it might float a small craft, I figured I'd go it alone or bamboozle a friend or two into joining me, and we'd dart out across the desert in search of a river. It would be a piecemeal journey in which we'd skip around to different stretches as the flows allowed, occasionally even ditching the boat altogether.

The section that most resembles a normal river is the Upper Dolores, a 37-mile stretch that runs from its headwaters, near the old mining town of Rico, along Colorado 145 to the town of Dolores. I drove over from Moab on a cold spring morning, found a gravel pullout, and dragged my kayak down an embankment. Scraping along the riverbed, I realized I was a bit early: April snow beds lined the riverbanks, the cottonwoods were gray and naked, and the water was icy. But at least I was floating, and the canyon was fine, lined with leafless aspens on one side and tall firs on the other. Yet as I paddled by the village of Dolores, I saw banks of silt. The current died beneath me, and there I was on McPhee Reservoir. Dirt bikes whined across the sand flats that had been exposed by the dropping water level. Dust clouds blew in the crosswinds. This was as far as the current would take me.

I wanted to see the dam, but it's not open to the public, so I went back to Moab and made an appointment for an official tour. When the day arrived, I drove out to the Bureau of Reclamation office in Cortez. Vern Harrell, the McPhee operations manager, invited me into his office and made a phone call while I admired thebearskins and elk heads mounted on the wall beside framed federal-issue portraits of Bush and Cheney. Then he hung up and told me the tour was nixed.

"Code Orange," he said. "The whole country's on alert."

I thanked him and walked out the door.

Code Orange, my ass. It's a free country, and I was going to proceed with or without an official tour. If I couldn't see the dam, I'd at least get a good look at the reservoir. So I got in my truck and wound down a gravel road toward the mudflats of McPhee Reservoir. Night was falling, and snow was expected. I sped along the road, which headed across the retreating reservoir, and, as I started to fishtail, realized that this road was actually a berm. The mud was slick, and if I lost momentum I'd sink. I kept my foot on the gas, rode out the fishtails, and finally reached a dry spot where I thought I could turn around. I tried a ten-point turn, but the rear wheels of my truck slid off the edge and spun.

One of these days, I reflected, I'll buy a four-wheel drive.

I got out, pulled on a parka, and slogged back across the berm. It got dark fast, and half an hour later I arrived at a lonely gas station. I told the cashier where I was stuck.

"Been there, done that," said a lady buying a six-pack. The cashier gave me the phone book, and I began to call the local tow trucks, all of whom declined my business. By this time a gray-haired man had arrived behind the counter, and he and the cashier were listening to my ordeal.

"We could call Buck," the cashier suggested.

"Buck's drunk," said the gray-haired man.

We stood there, looking at the candy bars.

"What the heck," said the man. "I've got a truck."

With his help, we hauled my pickup out of the mud.

This was some river trip, I thought. I had made it past the dam, but if I wanted to go on, I'd have to drag my kayak over 108 miles of cobble before the free-flowing waters of the San Miguel joined the Dolores. And then—maybe—my boat would float.

You might think this is about to become one of those stories where the author sulks for days along a dry riverbed just to make you feel guilty for flushing the toilet.

Hell, no.

I ditched the boat, got in my truck, and drove the next section to mile 63. That's what roads are for.

AFTER A BRIEF RETURN to Moab, I met up with my friend Damon Yerkes downriver from the town of Slick Rock, Colorado, to tackle the next part. Damon is the perfect partner for an ill-conceived expedition. He used to work for a Fortune 500 company, got "reorganized," and then, he says, "learned how to live like a dirtbag for $40 a day." Now 43, he resides in Salt Lake City, where his jobs include ski tech, river guide, and landscaper.

Our destination was Slick Rock Canyon, a 31-mile stretch of the Dolores bordered by the rugged badlands between the San Juan Mountains and Utah's canyon country. But Damon had a flat tire. And when we put on the spare, it was flat, too.

"God damn," he said, and that summed it up. We were about five miles from pavement, 20 miles from a town. We hid his truck behind a juniper and pressed on in mine. From mile 63 we drove until the road got too rough, then carried our packs to a side canyon and hiked overnight to the heart of Slick Rock Canyon.

Down there, the cliffs were high and the river was wide and shallow. An owl hooted. We camped at mile 85 on a dry bench above the Dolores and set out downriver on foot in the morning. Travel was grim. The banks were choked with willow and tamarisk, which I occasionally had to crawl under on my belly. The river itself was thigh deep in places, very cold, the color of chocolate milk, and slathered with quicksand that swallowed us to the knee. After six miles of scrambling, sinking, and bushwhacking, we were scraped and exhausted.

We returned to camp and cracked open a plastic bottle of bourbon. I was suddenly very clear about why whitewater rafting is a much more popular activity than whitewater walking.

DOLORES RIVER COUNTRY is a high range of piñon pine and sagebrush interspersed with plots of farmland. Green tractors are scattered about, and an occasional silo shimmers in the sun. Along these two-lane roads, American flags flutter above trailers, and every 20 miles or so there's a tough little town with a no-nonsense name like Egnar or Nucla, where they grow no-nonsense crops like wheat, beans, and hay.

I wondered how these hardscrabble farmers had managed to pay for a $564 million project.

They hadn't. Although irrigators are the dam's reason for being, they pay only 5 percent of its price tag. Most of the cost is recovered through the electricity sold by the Bureau of Reclamation on its other dams, like Glen Canyon. If you live in the West, chances are your electric bill subsidizes irrigation, a cost you're supposed to recoup from lower food prices at the grocery store.

Don Schwindt, 55, a Stanford-educated alfalfa farmer from Cortez and president of the board of the Dolores Water Conservancy District, the agency that owns rights to most of the water in the reservoir, makes no apologies for irrigation. "If you choose to live in civilization," he told me, "you have to accept the limitations it puts on the environment." Schwindt warns that taking water from farmers would not only be illegal; it would make farming less profitable, causing farmers to subdivide their fields and sell lots to city folks for second homes.

"If you want to grow alfalfa, maybe you should move someplace where it rains," says Tom Klema, 56, who lives in Durango, Colorado, and has been guiding on the Dolores—and fighting the dam—since 1975. He complains that farmers use water however they please, even if that means running sprinklers into the wind on a hot day.

Last year a new voice emerged in this debate. Setting up shop in a tiny Main Street office in Durango, the Dolores River Coalition (DRC) is trying to devise ways to get water into the river without pissing off everyone involved. According to Chuck Wanner, the group's director, "Any solution will have to be win-win for both environmentalists and agriculture, or else nobody will cooperate."

One idea is to offer incentives to irrigators. With privately raised funds, the coalition could pay for increased efficiency in the canals; in exchange, a portion of the saved water would be reallocated to the river. Or it could buy water shares outright and simply let it flow downstream.

But for the time being, the only boatable water in the Dolores is the 63 miles below the confluence with the San Miguel River, 108 miles downriver from the Bradfield Bridge launch. A week after Damon and I returned from Slick Rock Canyon, the gauge at the confluence jumped from 200 to 1,000 cubic feet per second. This time I recruited three friends and drove two hours from Moab around the LaSal Mountains, then followed a gravel road down to the Dolores. The river was soupy and lifeless, until we eached the confluence. Here the chocolate waters of the Dolores collided with the churning mahogany flood of the San Miguel.

We slid the kayaks out of the truck and, hopping on one foot, I pulled on my wetsuit, as if in one wasted minute I might lose the water altogether. We lowered the boats off the side of the road through bramble, thickets, poison ivy, loose rock, and cactus. Finally, at mile 108, I dropped my boat into the Dolores and paddled. The two currents swirled together and disappeared downcanyon: Yes, I was finally floating on a river.

It was the first time I had ever knowingly launched just downstream from a Superfund site. The uranium town of Uravan, on the banks of the San Miguel just up from the confluence, was found to be so dangerously radioactive that the mine owners, Union Carbide Corporation, were forced to pay $40 million for its dismantling and cleanup. These days you'll find only massive pools of murky liquid ringed in chain link, and a host of foreboding signs that read NO TRESPASSING or RADIOACTIVE.

We paddled through a deep sandstone canyon, and below us the river followed Colorado 141 for another 30 miles or so. But none of us had thought to bring sleeping bags or tents, because we didn't think we'd actually get on the water. So we pulled out at mile 113 and drove back home to Moab.

THE NEXT WEEKEND DAMON AND I met up again to run the final 30 miles, which neither of us had ever seen. The surge from the San Miguel had ended as quickly as it began, and the Dolores was once again too low for a raft. No problem: We had unearthed a pair of clunky 15-year-old kayaks, big enough to stow lots of gear.

Our packing was unscientific. We lined the hulls with trash bags and stuffed them with clothes, sleeping pads, and Ziplocs full of food. Waterproof items such as beer cans and fuel bottles and a PVC poop tube were left to bang about in the bilge. Regulations required that we carry something metal for containing campfires; we brought a pizza pan.

We also brought along Mikey Golins, a fearless 20-year-old river guide whom we thought we could talk into going first in the rapids. I dropped Damon and Mikey at an old diversion dam with a rocky chute on either side. Mikey paddled through safely, and then Damon launched. Within 30 seconds he was pinned sideways in his behemoth kayak. I could hear him cursing from where I stood on the banks. I felt bad for him, pinned in about 18 inches of water. Finally he pulled his skirt and popped out of his boat. Afraid of getting his feet trapped on the bottom, Damon tried to float, but the river wasn't deep enough. He sort of crawled face first down the channel, banging against rocks, cussing louder by the moment. As soon as Mikey towed him to shore, I snuck off to the truck, worried what Damon might do to me if he caught me. This whole stupid idea, after all, had been mine.

We camped that night under a grove of cottonwoods. Damon kicked aside the dried cow pies, built a twig fire in the pizza pan, and roasted chunks of pepperoni on a stick and mixed them into our plastic bowls of macaroni and cheese. The poison ivy I'd acquired on my thighs the week before was rashing up nicely. For the first time, it resembled a river trip.

The next morning we scraped over gravel bars as the river was swallowed up by a massive mouth of sandstone. There was no horizon but up. On the banks, the Mormon tea blossomed in bursts of yellow. As if emerging from the center of the earth, we floated through 200 million years of rock: from the red talus slopes of the Chinle to the towering black-streaked Wingate layer, the cracked Kayenta, the golden walls of the Navajo and Entrada, and finally the gray mounds of the Morrison.

Will the Dolores ever again run wild and free? Southwestern Colorado won't give up irrigation anytime soon, and even if groups like the DRC convince—or pay—irrigators to reduce waste and keep more water in the river, the Dolores will be runnable only when the drought ends. Until then, the only ones to pass through its magnificent canyons will be people like Damon and me: the dreamers, the determined, the daft.

The next morning, we floated toward the thunder of cars on Utah 128, and our boats bobbed against the wind to the confluence, at mile 171. The brown clouds of the Dolores marbled together with the translucent-green Colorado, and from there the precious and sorrowful water continued its journey from canyon to dam, from dam to canyon, to the fountains of Las Vegas, the golf courses of Phoenix, the lettuce fields of California, and maybe, though not likely, to the sea.

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