Colorado Ute History and Colonial Land & Water Appropriation

The history of how Colorado’s rivers were allocated, dammed, and diverted is inextricable from the history of US conquest in Colorado. Amorina researched the history of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Dolores Project, which built McPhee Dam and diverts water from the Dolores watershed to the San Juan watershed for agricultural and municipal use. Importantly, the Dolores Project honors Ute Mountain Ute reserved water rights. The history of Ute people, Colorado conquest, and Dolores River management in southwest Colorado offer insights into the current dynamics of who does and does not benefit from the systems of watershed management in the Colorado River basin.

The lands that make up Colorado today were historically occupied by many Indigenous people, including: Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Apache, Comanche, Kiowa, Osage, Pueblo, Diné (Navajo), and Ute people. Utes lived nomadically across large portions of Colorado and Utah but were forcibly removed to reservations in Utah and Colorado in the 1800s by a series of broken treaties and agreements with the US government. The only reservations in Colorado are the Ute Mountain and Southern Ute Reservations in the southwest corner.

The Dolores Project is a fascinating case study of Colorado River management and US conquest because its associated dams and diversions were dreamed up and made possible by the legacy of conquest, but, McPhee Dam would not have been fully funded and completed if the Ute people in Colorado did not advocate for securing reserved water rights to their arid reservation lands. The story of Colorado conquest, how the Dolores River was dammed, and how the Ute Mountain Reservation finally got reliable water provides an example of how Tribes in the Colorado Basin have to work really hard to have their basic rights met and how Colorado River watershed management can no longer go forward without Tribes at the decision-making table.