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Dolores River 8
Cactus blooms on the shores of the Dolores River following a wet spring.

Taking a Learning Journey Down a River in Recovery

September 20, 2023
Peter Skidmore
This spring, I paddled the Dolores River. Here’s what I discovered about how habitat restoration efforts are impacting this Colorado River tributary

The Dolores River was the first Western river I ever paddled.

It was the start of the spring melt and, relative to anything I’d ever paddled before, I remember it as a big river with big waves, silty thick waters and big sand beaches.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was the last time the Dolores would see regular spring runoff flows. That year, in 1984, the then-new McPhee Dam closed and has since allowed only about a third of historic flows.

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Author Peter Skidmore floats in a packraft on the first day of a five-day trip on Utah's Dolores River. Here, Peter heads into the Ponderosa Canyon segment of the river.

Only on big snow years, when excess water is expected, does the Dolores see the high spring snowmelt flows that for millennia maintained its wild river character and habitat. Those flows allow boaters to experience the wilderness canyons from there to its confluence with the Colorado River 170 miles below.

This year was one of those big snow years. McPhee opened its gates in May and let the snowmelt run as part of a management plan negotiated to provide recreational and environmental flows on big water years.

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Peter Skidmore and friends Chris Ennis and Brian Whitlock spent five days paddling the Dolores River. In this photo, the group descends into Slickrock Canyon, where thin ribbons of riparian habitat are mostly native willow and cottonwood.

And this year, I joined the snowmelt for a five-day trip through the Ponderosa and Slickrock Canyon stretches – 97 miles in total. We set out with clear, warm skies, a few days before the Memorial Day crowds and as flows were being ramped back down from a peak release to a minimum flow.

Though it had been decades since I’d paddled the Dolores, I had gotten to know the river pretty well through my work with the foundation and collaborations with scientists doing research on the Dolores.

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The view from a canyon rim shows a flooded island on the Dolores River. The image reveals the diversity of habitat created by differences of flow and vegetation during spring runoff.

The Dolores had been one of the priority tributary rivers for the foundation’s Colorado River program from about 2010 to 2020. It was one of a handful of rivers where the foundation supported watershed-scale riparian habitat restoration.

Like many rivers in the West, the Dolores had become overrun with tamarisk, an invasive shrub that is very well adapted to regulated (dammed) rivers and overgrazed floodplains. Our partners were experimenting and scaling different methods of removing tamarisk to reestablish native willow and cottonwood along the river.

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The Dolores River winds its way through sandstone cliffs and valley bottoms of benches and riparian ribbons along its shorelines.

The foundation believes innovative ideas and partnerships can protect water resources and watershed health in the Colorado River Basin, which provides water to nearly 40 million people in seven states. What we learn from restoration efforts on the Dolores River can also help us adapt our strategy in pursuit of a long-term vision – to ensure the American West has enough water and healthy watersheds to sustain the region's natural and working lands.

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Paddlers navigate the Ponderosa and Slickrock segments of the Dolores River, through inundated floodplains of cottonwood trees, a flood-dependent species.

My trip down the Dolores was part of that learning journey.

The Dolores at high flow is a sporty river and took a lot of concentration. But between rapids, I was able to float and observe with curiosity the changes taking place.

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Forest vegetation changes with elevation. In this photo, Ponderosa pines give way to mature cottonwoods as the dominant species on the Dolores.

We gradually descended through shifting mosaics of native riparian vegetation, from Ponderosa pine forests in the upper reaches to Juniper, box elder, willow and cottonwood. But there was no hiding that the Dolores has been fundamentally changed by decades of regulated and diminished flow and cattle grazing.

Without regular and occasionally extreme spring runoff flows, the channel shrank and narrowed. It simplified and lost diversity of habitat, while the riparian plant communities steadily shifted to pervasive stands of impenetrable and inhospitable tamarisk.

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Over decades, the Dolores River had become overrun with tamarisk, an invasive shrub that is very well adapted to regulated rivers and overgrazed floodplains. This image shows tamarisk killed by the tamarisk beetle, which is used to control the invasives.

Native willow and cottonwood are flood-adapted and flood-dependent species. Without the disturbances of regular floods and with the impacts of grazing these plants cannot compete with tamarisk. McPhee has captured most of the sand and fine sediment that used to resupply the river’s beaches and provide for natural native plant recruitment.

But during my five days on the river, I also saw a river reclaiming some of what has been taken from it.

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Receding floodwaters reveal flood-adapted species on the Dolores River. Only the portions of leaves above waterline had leafed out.

At high flows, I saw a river doing what a natural river is supposed to do – flooding the floodplains, pulling trees into the river, forming log jams, scouring pools and leaving sand on beaches and bars. It was recreating the complexity that provides for diversity of life and habitat.

I also saw increasing signs of a dynamic river as tributaries contributed sand and debris that adds complexity to habitat. And I saw the changes brought about by the active management of our partners in their efforts to reverse the balance of invasive tamarisk and native trees.

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Cactus blooms on the shores of the Dolores River following a wet spring.

I saw miles of actively restored healthy native riparian habitat. I saw miles of native plants reclaiming their dominance through natural processes.

The core hypothesis and assumption of managing invasives with the expectation that native plants will rebound is yet to be proven or shown to be durable. We’re still learning about the impact of the innovative restoration work on the Dolores.

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Receding floodwaters on the Dolores River cover gravel bars and expose willows that had been submerged. Flood-adapted species can be submerged and are not easily uprooted because they are flexible and bendy.

For instance, I saw the tempering impact of the tamarisk beetle that has been in the Dolores watershed since 2008 and can limit and reduce tamarisk’s ability to reestablish. Tamarisk will always be in the system, but maybe the native plants can compete now, though the diminished flows will continue to make this even more challenging.

I witnessed a changed river and am hopeful that it may be trending toward a new equilibrium, a novel ecosystem, where at least the riparian habitat and wildlife that depends on it now stands a chance.

We believe the best way to achieve lasting impact is to look, listen, learn and lead with our partners and the communities we serve. This series tells some of those stories of change.
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