SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
In defiance of gravity, water from the Animas River is piped 600 feet up the hillside from Santa Rita Park to Lake Nighthorse reservoir.
The pumps are so powerful that they could suck the Animas River dry.
Almost two years after the reservoir was filled in June 2011, local government officials have not allowed kayaking, bird watching or mountain biking on the 5,500-acre site.
Lake Nighthorse might be a case of politics proving to be a bigger obstacle than the laws of physics.
About two miles from downtown Durango, the lake is a temptation for all kinds of outdoor enthusiasts, but it is not yet accessible to the public. Officials now are saying 2014, but they have delayed the opening before.
To venture onto the property without permission literally is a federal offense, although judging by footprints and pawprints, people and their dogs apparently have made the trek.
“We’ve had to chase out people with kayaks and canoes,” said Tyler Artichoker, facilities manager for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
When explaining to the public why the lake is not open for recreation, at least three politicians – city councilors Sweetie Marbury and Christina Rinderle and council candidate Dean Brookie – respond that they’re itching to take their watercraft to the lake, too.
“I was hoping for 2013 (opening of the lake),” Marbury said at a recent council meeting. “I had my rubber boat ready to go. Hang on, Durango.”
After budgeting almost $200,000 to open the lake this summer, Durango Parks and Recreation Director Cathy Metz laid out a series of complications that has moved the goal of opening the lake to the summer of 2014.
The city first must annex the land so it can provide law enforcement.
The Bureau of Reclamation must approve a lease agreement with the city and do an environmental assessment of the city’s master recreation plan, which was developed after much public input and consensus building about the kinds of recreation to allow. Jet skis are out. The master plan calls for a “family beach” to distinguish it from other kinds of beaches.
The bureau’s environmental assessment then must be made available for public comment, which is expected to happen in April.
Once the bureau signs off on the lease agreement, the city plans to get assistance from the Colorado National Guard for help with land clearing. An entrance station and boat-inspection area also must be built with funding from a state grant.
Why the city of Durango is trying to coordinate with federal and state agencies about a lake that is outside city limits is indicative of the long and complicated history of the Animas-La Plata Water Project.
Delays and cancellations are a hallmark of the project, the planing for which initially was approved by Congress in 1956 but whose construction did not begin until 2003.
The project, which was to settle water claims with Native Americans and provide a stable resource of water for municipal and industrial purposes, involved so much intrigue that former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart was inspired to write a pot-boiler novel called Durango.
Today, the lake is overseen by an association board representing seven governmental entities, including four regional water commissions/conservation boards and three tribes – the Navajo Nation, the Southern Utes and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
“If you can name a governmental entity, it has a stake in Lake Nighthorse,” Rinderle said.
In planning for the lake, the city has tried to make sure “we’re sensitive to the interests involved and not be presumptuous,” she said.
Jason John, chairman of the lake’s association board and a representative for the Navajos’ interest, declined to comment for this story.
The lake originally was supposed to be a state park, but the city had to step in when the economy collapsed and the state no longer could afford the project.
Some question the wisdom of the city taking on the responsibility. Ron Meier, a member of the Durango Planning Commission, has pointed out that the city cannot keep acquiring playgrounds.
City officials said they plan to charge entrance fees to recover 90 percent of the operating costs with the balance shared by the Bureau of Reclamation and the city.
In addition, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has cooperated in funding a boat ramp, stocking the lake with fish and preparing for an inspection area to check boats for invasive species, said Joe Lewandowski, public information officer.
Artichoker clarified that the federal agency that manages the lake is “not in the recreation business. It’s not our expertise.”
It also would take an “act of Congress” to change the Bureau of Reclamation’s mission so it could manage the lake for recreation, he said.
Artichoker said he would assume that federal budget problems have precluded other federal agencies from getting involved.
Things were not always so because the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Park Service jointly opened another big reservoir for public recreation within months of the completion of its dam, according to the Park Service.
The Boulder Dam Recreation Area, now known as the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and associated with the renamed Hoover Dam near Las Vegas, opened in 1936 in the middle of the Great Depression.