Diving in
City tentatively on track to open Lake Nighthorse in April

Diving in

The east side of Lake Nighthorse, pictured above last winter, is the largest no-wake zone on the water. Access, however, isn't so easy. The surrounding lands are not open to the public, so it can only be accessed by crossing the reservoir from the west side./File photo

Tracy Chamberlin - 12/14/2017

It’s been a long time coming. After more than four decades of debate and discussion, it seemed Lake Nighthorse was on track to open this April. But a recent outcry from local residents means questions – and controversy – still cloud the lake’s future.

Durango Parks and Recreation Director Cathy Metz presented the City Council with final plans for recreation management at a meeting Tuesday night. During her presentation she explained how controversial the project was for Durangoans, especially in the early days of the Animas La Plata Project.

“At that time it was the most controversial project,” Metz said. “I’d say that controversy about Lake Nighthorse has continued to today.”

Quiet, please

The latest concern from residents is about motorboats.

In June, a group called the Quiet Lake Nighthorse Coalition, or Quiet No Wake Lake Nighthorse, delivered a petition to the city with 1,200 signatures. They requested the lake be a no-wake zone, limiting motorized boats to 5 mph. For the coalition, this would keep the lake peaceful and still allow for fishing, kayaking, canoeing and paddleboarding.

It would also prevent activities like water skiing, wake boarding and lake surfing.

The Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that over-sees Lake Nighthorse, typically enforces a speed limit of 40 mph because most motorboat activities, like water skiing, fall under that limit. All of those activities, however, exceed 5 mph.

In an attempt to find compromise, city staff met with the coalition members and made adjustments to the city’s management plan.

First, they expanded one of two no-wake zones, which combine to cover 36 percent of the lake’s 1,490-acre surface. Second, they proposed opening the lake April 1, but not allowing motorized boating until May 15. It would closed to everyone Nov. 16-March 31. Finally, city staff 

recommended the creation of the Friends of Lake Nighthorse, an advisory group comprised of a variety of lake users.

“We feel we are capable of managing this responsibly, but we’d like some help,” Metz said of the group’s purpose. If the lake is to open at all, motorized boats will need to be allowed. Not only were motorboats included in several of the public planning documents leading up to Tuesday’s meeting – like a 2000 Environmental Impact Statement, 2011 Recreation Master Plan and 2014 Conceptual Recreation Plan – they are required under a 2009 grant agreement for $3 million.

The Bureau of Reclamation applied for the $3 million grant with the state of Colorado after the Environmental Impact Statement in 2000, and the funds were used to build a boat ramp, access road, parking lot and restrooms.

As a part of the grant, thelake needs to be managed “for public recreational motorboat use during the useful life (of the improvements),” the contract reads. The useful life is 20 years.

In addition to the confines of the contract, the city is wrestling with the bottom line when it comes to the budget. Management of Lake Nighthorse is expected to cost the city $500,000 a year. Part of the funds will come from entrance fees, and the rest would be covered by the Bureau of Reclamation and the city.

According to a 2010 economic impact study, entrance fees were expected to bring in about $300,000 each year, eventually covering 90 percent of the operating costs. Those numbers, however, were dependent on motorized boating. The study was done with the assumption that activities like water skiing would be allowed. Also, the Bureau of Reclamation’s purse strings – and, in turn, its funding contributions – are controlled by the U.S. Congress.

It’s uncertain what kind of impact the City Council’s decisions about boating would have on the operating budget. One thing that is certain is sales tax revenues are not filling the city coffers the way officials were hoping they would. At this point, according to City Manager Ron LeBlanc, revenues are only up 8.4 percent for the year, which is lower than expected. He said he couldn’t give an exact reason for it but did plan to present a detailed report to the Council in the New Year.

Stuck in the middle

Lake Nighthorse has always been a complicated web of compromise.

It began in the late 1960s with fights over water rights between the federal government and tribal leaders. A couple decades later, the two came to an agreement and created the Animas-La Plata Project. Another decade or so passed before thoughts of a reservoir even

entered the conversation. Once it did, however, talks quickly turned to recreation. Residents started dreaming about their favorite pastimes, whether it was canoeing, kayaking, boating, camping, hiking or any of the other outdoor activities Durangoans can’t get enough of.

At this point, another problem became apparent – someone had to manage it all.

“It was never intended to come to the City of Durango,” Metz said.

Lake Nighthorse was originally supposed to be a state park. Federal agencies also considered taking on management duties, but funding became an issue. In the end, the only entity willing to step up was the City of Durango.

“We are the government of last resort,” LeBlanc explained. He called the city a vendor, since it’s not the one tasked with making legal decisions.

The legal decision-maker for Lake Nighthorse is the Animas-La Plata Operation, Maintenance and Replacement Association. Members include the Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District, Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority, Navajo Nation, San Juan Water Commission, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

For the past couple of decades, city staff have navigated the wishes of the association, the tribes, the Bureau of Reclamation and the people of Durango. Even today, though, many of those wishes are still at odds.

For example, the east side of Lake Nighthorse is the largest no-wake zone, and County Road 211 runs right up to it. County Road 211, however, is on tribal land, as is most of the water in the lake. At this point, the tribes do not want to open the road to the public. Therefore, the only way to access the east side of the lake, which spans more than 3 miles, is to cross it. For many quiet users, like paddle boarders, that’s a challenge.

One way the city attempted to address the issue was by increasing the size of the no-wake zone along the lake’s western shoreline. But, for some residents, that’s not enough.

This leaves several open questions when it comes to the city’s current management plan. Things like access, speed limits, hours of operation, even whether jet skis or other types of craft would be allowed on the water.

“I think we need to sort out the nuts and bolts,” City Councilor Sweetie Marbury said.

Even with those open questions, the Council still plans to move forward with an April opening, which means the Parks and Recreation Department will need to hire staff and purchase supplies.

Over the next several months, City Council will continue to take public input and turn to the Friends advisory group to help them work out all the details.

Marbury said she actually attended her first meeting on the Animas-La Plata project in the 1970s and, like many Durango residents, wants to see the reservoir open.

“We’re not prepared to stop,” she said. “I’ve been ready since 1976.”