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San Juan National Forest Watersheds: Find Your Water Source

Animas Watershed

watershed_animasCommunities supplied: If you live in the city of Durango, your water comes from the mainstem of the Animas River and its tributary, the Florida River. If you are from the town of Silverton, your watershed is also the Animas.

Overview: The 126-mile-long Animas River is born from snowmelt high in the rugged San Juan Mountains surrounding the town of Silverton.  Not far downstream from Silverton and the confluences of Cement and Mineral Creek, the Animas River enters a dramatic gorge bordered on either side by the Weminuche Wilderness and swells in volume from the addition of innumerable small streams that descend from the Needle and Grenadier Mountains. Cascade Creek flows in at the lower end of the Wilderness boundary and the Animas, also known as the ‘River of Lost Souls,’ continues to wind its way through the canyon for several miles. The gradient of the Animas flattens considerably at Baker’s Bridge, approximately 13 miles north of Durango, and Hermosa Creek joins the river as it meanders through the broad and glacially carved Animas Valley.  Both Junction and Lightner creeks flow into the Animas River within the town of Durango.  The 61.7-mile-long Florida River flows into the Animas River downstream from Durango and just north of the Colorado-New Mexico boundary.  The Animas River ultimately flows into the San Juan River at Farmington, New Mexico.

Watershed Size: 1,110 square miles in Colorado, 1,370 square miles total (Colorado and New Mexico)

Wilderness/SMAs: Weminuche Wilderness, Hermosa Wilderness, Electra Research Natural Area, Grizzly Peak Natural Area

Special species: In 2018, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) biologists discovered a unique genetic lineage of the Colorado River cutthroat trout in several streams on the San Juan National Forest, including isolated tributaries to Hermosa Creek.

Historical: The sparkling clear waters of the Florida River has long been of interest to the City of Durango as a source of drinking water supply primarily because the more conveniently located Animas River had been sullied by the historical practice of flushing mine tailings directly into its tributaries.  As far back as 1916, the US Government sold the lands for City Reservoir, located on the Florida River in what is now the Weminuche Wilderness, to the city at the cost of $1.25/acre.  The Williams Ditch Company used manual labor and horses to construct the original rock and crib dam at this remote location prior to the establishment of the San Juan Forest in 1899. 

Key water recreation highlights: The Animas River’s Gold Water Fishery in Durango, whitewater rafting in the Upper Animas and Smelter rapids in Durango, or hike to Spud Lake. 

Status: Current restoration efforts of the Upper Animas River water quality including addressing the release of metal-laden water and sediments from historic mines, can be viewed here.

Alerts: Results of Animas River monitoring conducted by Mountain Studies Institute can be found here.

Watershed GroupThe Animas River Stakeholders Group and Animas River Forum

Watershed Plan: None



Dolores Watershed


Communities supplied:  The towns of Dove Creek, Towaoc, Cortez, Dolores, and Rico all obtain their drinking water directly from the Dolores, from McPhee Reservoir or from tributaries to the Dolores.

Overview: The 241-mile-long Dolores River gathers runoff from the snow-laden San Miguel and Rico Mountains south of Telluride.  Numerous small tributaries, including Silver, Scotch, Wildcat and Bear creeks, swell the volume of the river as it flows southwest through the glacially sculpted valley and by the town of Rico. The river nearly doubles in volume at the confluence with the West Fork of the Dolores, which is also a popular ‘put-in’ for boaters who like to float down to the town of Dolores.  A large part of Haycamp Mesa drains into Lost Canyon Creek, which flows from the east into the Dolores River at the town of Dolores. Completed in 1986, McPhee Reservoir flooded the lower Dolores Valley, inundating the timber company town of McPhee, and today offers various boat-launching facilities, picnic areas, and campgrounds operated by the U.S. Forest Service.  Several tributaries flow into McPhee Reservoir, including Beaver and House creeks, as the Dolores makes a giant “U” turn to the northwest around the mountains. Below McPhee Reservoir, the Dolores River has carved an exposed sedimentary rock canyon that averages 1,100 feet deep for over 40 miles.  The River continues to flow north and west picking up the San Miguel River and on into the Colorado River in Utah just north of Moab. 

Watershed Size: 4,574 square miles total watershed size and 1,434 square miles above the USGS stream gage at Slickrock.

Wilderness/SMA: Lizard Head Wilderness, Narraguinnep Research Natural Area

Special Species:  The native, threatened GB lineage Colorado cutthroat trout have been found in seven tributary streams to the upper Dolores.

Historical:  According to legend, one of the Spanish exploring parties of the eighteenth century lost two members of its group while attempting to cross a raging channel.  Thereafter, the stream was referred to as El Rio de Nuestra Senora de las Dolores, or the “River of Our Lady of Sorrows” which was subsequently then abbreviated to the ‘Dolores River’ (Blair, Chapter 19 of The Western San Juan Mountains their Geology, Ecology and Human History).

Recreation Highlights:  These include boating on McPhee Reservoir, camping at one of the Forest Service Campgrounds on the West Fork of the Dolores River, and rafting the Dolores during the Dolores River Festival in June.  Boating the Dolores River below McPhee Dam is only possible in infrequent years when surplus water is released from storage.

Status: In 2012, Colorado’s Water Quality Control Commission has voted to adopt "Outstanding Water" designations for three native cutthroat trout streams in the Dolores basin. These designations apply water quality standards designed to preserve the high-quality condition of some of Colorado's best and most important waters. The new designation will ensure that water quality is maintained without degradation for the native Colorado River cutthroat trout in the Little Taylor, Rio Lado, and Spring Creek drainages.  The Commission found that the waters supported high-quality water and had "exceptional recreational or ecological significance.”

Alerts: Information on water releases from McPhee Reservoir

Watershed Groups:
Dolores River Anglers – Trout Unlimited Chapter #145
Upper Dolores: Dolores Watershed Resilient Forest Collaborative 
Lower Dolores (Below McPhee Dam):  Dolores River Dialogue

Watershed Plan:
Nonpoint Source Pollution Watershed Plan, a project of the Dolores River Dialogue (DRD) 
Watershed Plan for the East Fork of the Dolores River in Dolores County Prepared for: The Town of Rico August 17, 2006


Mancos Watershed


Community Supplied: The Town of Mancos 

Overview: The 116 mile long Mancos River originates on the western flanks of the La Plata Mountains where four main tributaries begin among the ridges and peaks of the upper watershed: East Mancos, Middle Mancos, West Mancos and Chicken Creek. These branches of the river come together just upstream from the town of Mancos to form the Mancos River from where it flows to the southwest and picks up Mud Creek, a lower elevation tributary.    In the arid lower watershed, numerous small side canyons and ephemeral washes enter the river as it flows along eastern edge of Mesa Verde National Park and the  Ute Mountain Ute Reservation through the Mancos Canyon. The river then flows through relatively flat desert country of the Navajo Nation where Navajo Wash enters before the Mancos empties into the San Juan River in NW New Mexico. 

Watershed Size: approximately 800 square miles total and 72.6 square miles from the Colorado State of Natural Resources Stream Gage located on the Mancos River two miles upstream from the town of Mancos.

Wilderness/SMAs: None

Special Species: The lower Mancos River, where it flows through the Mesa Verde National Park, supports a fishery composed mostly of native species including roundtail chub, a fish species of "special concern" in Colorado and listed as threatened in New Mexico.  In this same reach, flannelmouth sucker, although very rare, can be found.  A population of Bluehead sucker persist on the Mancos River upstream from the Weber Canyon confluence (Jim White, CPW Fish Biologist). 

Historical: For almost a century, placer mining occurred at a six-acre site on the West Mancos River known as Golconda.  Miners had diverted a tributary into a narrow channel of fast moving water to make space for operations and the result was rock piles, eroded banks and mine tailings spread across the entire narrow valley floor. In 1993, the most recent claim owner was finished mining and the San Juan National Forest Fish Biologist was able to acquire funding to return the stream to its natural course, build fish habitat into the system and restore riparian vegetation to the floodplain.  Restoration of the West Mancos at Golconda helps safeguard the drinking water for the town of Mancos, as well as providing a welcome recreating spot for fishing and picking raspberries. 

Recreation Highlights: Boating and fishing at Jackson Reservoir at Mancos State Park.  Hike and fish the West Mancos by hiking into the canyon from Transfer Park.

Status: High concentrations of dissolved copper in the East Mancos River have impaired the water-quality to the extent that there is no longer a cold water fishery in the stream (Colorado Water Quality Control Commission).  In 2005 the Ute Mountain Ute tribe found that 16-17 miles of the Mancos River (of the 67 miles on the Reservation) are moderately impaired for chemical, physical and biological parameters (‘Nonpoint Source Assessment for the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, 2005 Revision’ Clow and Daniel B. Steffens and Ass. Inc.).
Alerts: None at this time.

Watershed Group: :  Mancos River Restoration and Resilience

Watershed Plan: The Mancos Watershed Plan



Upper San Juan Watershed


Communities Supplied:  The town of Pagosa Springs obtains their drinking water from the upper San Juan River and its tributaries.  Ignacio and Bayfield obtain their drinking water from Los Pinos River.

Overview: The San Juan River begins at the confluence of its East and West Forks which drain the high country along the continental divide near Wolf Creek Pass in the eastern San Juan Mountains. The river flows southwest through the foothills picking up flows from Four Mile Creek before passing through the town of Pagosa Springs. Descending from the South San Juan Wilderness area, the Rio Blanco and Navajo River flow into the San Juan below the town of Pagosa before the river reaches the Navajo Lake reservoir just north of the New Mexico border. Los Pinos River starts near Weminuche Pass on the continental divide and picks up Lake Creek, home of Emerald Lake, as it descends through the Weminuche Wilderness from the high peaks. The confluence of the Pine with Vallecito Creek has been inundated by Vallecito Reservoir since its completion in 1941.  The 22-mile-long Beaver Creek drains the area from Baldy Mountain on the east side of the watershed before flowing into Los Pinos just north of Ignacio while Spring Creek picks up runoff from the southwest side of the HD mountains.  The Pine flows into Navajo Lake Reservoir in New Mexico.

Watershed Size: The Upper San Juan is approximately 52 miles long and 1250 square miles in size near where the stream empties into Navajo Lake Reservoir. The Los Pinos River is 65 miles long and 519 square miles in size at the Colorado-New Mexico border.

Wilderness/SMAs: Weminuche Wilderness, South San Juan Wilderness, and Research Natural Areas: Hidden Mesas, Navajo River, Martinez Creek

Special Species: In 2018, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) biologists discovered a unique genetic lineage of the Colorado River cutthroat trout that was long thought to be extinct.  It is found in only five streams on the San Juan National Forest, including an isolated tributary to the West Fork of the San Juan River.  These exceptionally rare fish are also found in two streams on private land.

Historical:  Since 1971, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has operated a major trans-basin diversion called the San Juan-Chama Project.  The diversion consists of a series of tunnels that pick up water sequentially from the Rio Blanco, Navajo and Little Navajo Rivers and carries it over a low divide into the Rio Grande Basin to provide drinking water to the cities of Albuquerque and Santa Fe, as well as water for irrigation. The loss of 70 percent of the historic annual water from the Rio Blanco caused profound changes in the aquatic habitat that has been mitigated through in-channel work on over 12 miles of stream on private lands.

Recreation Highlights: rafting the San Juan through the town of Pagosa Springs; Rainbow Hot Springs along the West Fork of the San Juan; the spectacular waterfalls on Four Mile Creek. There are several riverside campgrounds on the San Juan National Forest, including West Fork, East Fork,  Cimarrona, Williams Creek, and Lower Piedra Campgrounds.

Status:  Restrictions have been placed on the consumption of northern pike and walleye caught in Vallecito Reservoir due to elevated levels of mercury in fish tissue.

Alerts: None at this time

Watershed Groups:
Upper San Juan Enhancement Partnership
2-3-2 Cohesive Strategy Partnership

Watershed PlansUpper Pine Watershed State of the Watershed Report 2008