Coming up with a plan
PRID seeks to address increased recreation use, impacts at Vallecito
by Jonathan Romeo
After more than 80 years in operation, Vallecito Reservoir is getting a formalized recreation plan, a much-needed move to help manage the incredible increase of use at the lake in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, officials say.
“There are an enormous number of people who want to come recreate, and that translates into one word, and that word is ‘impact,’” Ken Beck, superintendent of the Pine River Irrigation District, or PRID, the organization that manages recreation at the reservoir, said.
The 125,400-acre-foot reservoir sits in an idyllic valley in the San Juan Mountains, about 25 miles northeast of Durango. It offers year-round recreation, including fishing, hiking, boating and camping in the summer, as well as Nordic skiing and ice fishing in the winter.
Like most outdoor places, however, visitation has exploded since the pandemic. In 2022, for instance, nearly 34,000 people bought permits from PRID to recreate on Vallecito Reservoir. However, that number only reflects people who actually bought passes, and the real number of users is probably much higher, Beck said. In 2019, that number was at about 27,000.
Though recreation has been part of the reservoir’s history since it was built in 1942, there has never been a formalized plan that spells out the rules and regulations for recreational use, Beck said.
“This should have happened years ago,” he said. “But back then, you could be out fishing all day and see no one. Now, on some weekends, like the Fourth of July, it’s practically shoulder to shoulder around the lake.”
The impact, Beck said, is more pronounced in recent years, with more trash, graffiti, trail damage and potential risks to water quality (such as boats not properly refilling gas tanks) – which is important to downstream water users such as farmers and municipalities.
“If we want this lake to be as pristine and beautiful for our kids and grandkids, we have to be on our toes,” Beck said.
Beck said the lack of a formalized plan over the years has led to confusion, and at times conflict, among user groups. Most recently, part of the Nordic ski trail system on the east side of the lake, which crosses both Forest Service and PRID land, was closed over a dispute about jurisdiction and user fees. (That dispute has since been settled, but more on that later.)
The recreation plan, Beck said, aims to eliminate future uncertainty and disagreements. Interested stakeholders have spent the last year taking into account all the different forms of recreation and demands on the area, and consolidated rules in a centralized document.
“We basically formalized the process,” he said, “so it isn’t open to question or speculation.”
One of the big points of contention, Beck said, is whether PRID has the jurisdiction to implement user fees. Long story short: it does. Around 2020, it was determined that PRID, the reservoir’s operating body under authority of the Bureau of Reclamation, has the legal authority to charge fees for those recreating on its land.
Beck said Vallecito Reservoir’s user fees – $5 a day or $50 for the year – is in line with similar lakes in the area. Both Lake Nighthorse and Navajo Lake, for instance, charge $10 for the day or $80 for the year. And the fees are justified, Beck said.
“It’s expensive to maintain a recreation site,” he said. “I don’t know any public areas that don’t charge some sort of fee to maintain their facility.”
Beck stressed that the fee is for recreational use, not a parking permit, which is a common misconception. And, he said the money will be used to maintain and mitigate all the impacts from the uptick in visitors.
“We think there’s no more pristine place to recreate in the Four Corners than Vallecito,” he said. “But we’re trying to offer that at a real value and keep our fees middle-of-the-road.”
Down the line, the management plan calls for exploring options to extend the boat ramp at the marina by 40 feet to accommodate launching at low water levels. The marina is currently operated by Vallecito Conservation and Sporting Association through a contract with PRID. The association did not return a call seeking comment on this story.
Ethan Scott, lands and recreation manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, said the recreation plan will plainly outline operations on the lake, including invasive aquatic species inspections, which areas are closed, off-road vehicle usage and more.
“With it all written down, it is as easy as possible for the public to find, so they know what the rules are,” he said.
After the plan is approved, people can find a defined process if they want to propose, say, a special event such as an ice fishing tournament or race, like the Vallecito Lake Heavy Half Marathon. And, it will lay out the rules for certain licenses, like for fishing guides.
“We’ve been talking about this for some time, and thought now was a great time to work on it and get it done,” Scott said.
Indeed, one of the most notable disputes arose in 2017, when the Nordic skiing trail on the edge of the water, known as “the beach” – considered the most scenic of the routes – was closed by PRID, effectively eliminating nearly 50% of the groomed terrain in the area. For years, Nordic skiers had enjoyed free use of the trails, which were on PRID and Forest Service land, with donations being collected for the Vallecito Nordic Ski Club, which maintains and grooms the trails.
PRID wanted to implement a fee for people using its land, but after years, was not able to resolve whether it had authority to do so. As a result, the trails on PRID land were closed until 2020, when it was determined PRID did have the right to charge a fee (at the above-mentioned rate of $5 a day, $50 for the year).
Gary Gianniny, Vallecito Nordic Ski Club president, said in an interview with The Durango Telegraph that the club is happy with the proposed recreation plan. The only request was to specify that the Nordic trails are open to Nordic skiing only. He said that feedback was incorporated into the latest draft of the plan.
“There are separate trails for hiking and snowshoeing, and bikes can do an amazing amount of damage to groomed trails,” he said. “We were glad to see that; it just makes it clear.”
PRID will hold an open meeting to discuss and receive feedback on the plan at 5 p.m. Wed., Aug. 30, at the Vallecito Lake Community Center, 17252 CR 501. It’s expected the plan will be finalized and adopted in time for next summer.
As for the public meeting, bring your ideas, Beck said. Already, one comment he received was from a woman who wanted to see more walking paths cleared of snow along the reservoir to allow more places to exercise during the winter.
“That’s a great idea,” he said. “We want to hear where we can improve what we’re already doing and see if we can do a better job in other places.” ?