SJCA Guide to the

Dolores River

A community came together to protect the river they all rely on, on their own terms.

The Dolores River begins amidst 14,000 ft summits in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains and flows for more than 230 miles to join the Colorado River in Utah. The Dolores River features magnificent stands of old-growth ponderosa pine, thrilling white-water rapids, sheer-walled sandstone canyons, and hidden archaeological treasures.

Dolores River Overlook

Dolores River Dialogue (DRD)

For over a decade the San Juan Citizens Alliance has worked in collaboration with local businesses, irrigators, land and water managers, wildlife officials, and conservation, fishing, and recreation organizations as part of the Dolores River Dialogue (DRD) to search for ways to improve management of the Lower Dolores River for the benefit of all users.

After the Dolores River was found suitable for Wild and Scenic River designation, the community came together in the Lower Dolores Plan Working Group to find an alternative management solution that would work for all river users. The Working Group formed a Legislative Subcommittee to spearhead the project and after years of analysis and collaboration they decided to pursue a 100,000-acre National Conservation Area (NCA) that would protect critical river related values and designate a 25,000-acre Wilderness Area.

National Conservation Area (NCA)

In 2015, after years of preparation, the Legislative Subcommittee released a draft proposal for a National Conservation Area (NCA) designation for the Lower Dolores River corridor from McPhee Dam to Bedrock. The NCA was designed in the place of a potential Wild and Scenic River designation. The proposal was built through collaboration of many stakeholders and was vetted and reviewed by all affected parties. Currently, the committee is working on legislative language for the NCA that includes the interests of stakeholders listed below:


River flows below the McPhee Dam must be managed to protect native fish species. Through a Native Fish Monitoring and Recommendation Team, the NCA will focus on flow management and habitat improvement for these species.


The Dolores River hosts one of the longest continuous rafting stretches in the United States at 170 miles. The NCA will be managed to protect these whitewater boating recreation opportunities.


In the NCA existing water rights would be honored and protected; and there would be no federal reserved water right associated with the legislation.


The Dolores River is host to outstanding and valuable archaeological sites, geologic formations, fish and wildlife, and scenery. The NCA will secure protection for these qualities of the river.


Under the NCA motorized use will be limited to designated routes and no new roads will be permitted except for administrative purposes, protection of public health and safety, or to provide access to private property. (Picture)


Grazing in the new Wilderness Area will be managed under the Wilderness Act’s regulations. Grazing in other parts of the NCA will continue as usual. (Picture)


The NCA prohibits new oil and gas leases and uranium claims. Where valid leases exist, those can be explored until they expire.


The NCA designation will change the Dolores River Canyon Wilderness Study Area into a designated Wilderness Area, permanently protecting 25,000 acres.

The diverse stakeholders involved in drafting the Dolores River NCA legislation are in final negotiations to see if agreeable language can be crafted. Sign up for our mailing list to stay updated!

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We are involved in similar work for other rivers in the region. Check out our Rivers page for more information.

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