Water

With the city of Durango poised to finalize its acquisition of water in Lake Nighthorse, city residents can rest assured that they will have water even in dry years. But no one should take that as an excuse to start planning housing tracts for the Dryside or building a golf course on Ewing Mesa.

Having a reserve of water is welcome and prudent. Thinking that we no longer need to be concerned about water is not. Lake Nighthorse is not a reason to encourage would-be developers’ dreams.

The city’s Lake Nighthorse water was made possible by a 2011 election that authorized payment of the necessary debt. It passed with 61 percent of the vote. Of the $6 million overall cost, $4 million will be in the form of a loan from the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority. The remaining $2 million will come from city reserves. All of that will be covered by revenue from the city’s water utility.

But with that, growth around here still needs to be planned and executed in a careful and responsible manner. It has to be thoughtful and planned with sustainability, conservation and environmental care built in from the start.

All that should seem obvious, but the history of the Southwest is a story of growth enabled by new water supplies. Las Vegas, the Phoenix area and Southern California are only the most extreme examples. Durango cannot emulate that kind of behavior and should not try.

For one thing, although all numbers associated with water projects seem enormous, the city’s share of the water in Lake Nighthorse is not that large – 1.6 percent. Durango’s water usage varies with the seasons as well as day-to-day. Summer not only has more tourists and seasonal residents, but also lawns and garden to water. At this time of year, Durango is using about 9.5 million gallons of water every day. In winter, that drops to as low as 3.2 million gallons per day – fewer visitors, no washing the car, no watering lawns or parks. Water usage would have to be cut to that mid-winter minimum every day for Durango’s share of a full Lake Nighthorse to supply the city for a year.

At least for now, that is how we should be thinking of that water, as a supply for non-rainy days or a back-up in case something happens to the city’s regular Florida River supply. That was threatened during the Missionary Ridge fire in 2002 and certainly could again.

Looking to the future, there is no guarantee that what the city can draw from Lake Nighthorse will be extra water. That the intake for the pumps that fill the lake were constructed so as to function even in low water was smart. But in the extreme, that would ensure only some water in the lake, not that it would be full. Durango would get 1.6 percent of whatever is available.

The future is unpredictable, but the current trend is not encouraging. Across the Southwest, drought may be becoming the new normal. A quick look at the Herald’s graphic of Animas River flow levels shows that, of the last four years, in only one year was the flow above the 94-year mean after June. The other three were significantly lower. A pattern with three-out-of-four years drier than the historic norm does not help reservoirs or forests to recoup.

Lake Nighthorse could well become a critical resource for the city – depending on who ends up with the other water and how much the overall Colorado River system is over-allocated. But it is not a reason to rush to annex or to build foolishly.

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