Lake Nighthorse opens for recreation Sunday. It is a moment decades in the making.
First approved by Congress in 1968 to fulfill a water rights settlement with Native American tribes, it was scaled back multiple times before work on the $560 million project started in 2003.
Water started flowing into the reservoir in 2009. That same year, the city expressed interest in managing the lake because the Colorado Parks and Wildlife declined to oversee it in 2008.
Since 2011, the city has worked with the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribe, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and other groups that own water in the lake to determine what level of recreation is acceptable, Parks and Recreation Director Cathy Metz said.
At the same time, contentious debate raged over motorized use versus quiet use on the lake. Durango City Council settled the argument in March by setting aside two days a week as wakeless days, meaning motorboats can go out on the lake but they can’t go so fast that they make a wake.
The city will revisit how it manages the lake in a few months, but in the meantime, Metz said, the city is focused on the opening of the lake.
“We are very optimistic. ... We are going to move forward with a wonderful recreational experience,” she said.
The city plans to celebrate the opening Saturday with a day of fishing for kids younger than 15.
“It is time for the kids to come have fun,” she said.
A formal grand opening ceremony will be held in May, she said.
For eager visitors planning their first Lake Nighthorse outing, there are some key things to know:
How will motorboats and paddlers share the lake?Gas and electric motorboats will be allowed on the lake from May 15 to Nov. 14. However, motorboats will not be allowed to have a wake Mondays and Wednesdays.
The compromise arose after the Quiet Lake Nighthorse Coalition spent months advocating for a no-wake lake. Advocates later proposed setting aside several days a week as wakeless.
The city is required to allow motorized boating on the lake because a grant funded by excise taxes on fuel for motorboats paid for the boat ramp and other improvements.
The Bureau of Reclamation prohibited motorboating from mid-April to mid-May, which means a few weeks each season will be set aside for paddlers.
This year until mid-May, the city will allow kayaks, canoes, rafts, float tubes, sailboards, paddleboards, float tubes and other hand-carry craft. A dock will be ready for the public by May 15.
Are some types of craft prohibited?The city does not allow jet skis, houseboats or open-air-exhaust craft on the lake.
Besides boating, what other activities does the lake offer?Visitors are welcome to fish, picnic and swim. They can also walk or bike along established roads. But the lake does not offer overnight camping or a trail system for hiking.
Those interested in swimming in the spring should consider a wet suit, Metz said. The surface temperature of the water last week was 40.8 degrees, Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Justyn Liff said.
But historical water surface temperatures have reached 75 degrees.
When will the lake be open?The lake will be open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekends from April 1 until May 14 while the city builds an overflow parking lot, among other projects.
From May 15 until Nov. 14 the lake will be open every day. Hours will vary with the available daylight in the summer and fall.
The lake will be closed from Nov. 15 through March 31 for wildlife migration.
What concessions might be available at the lake?The city plans to allow private companies to rent equipment, such as kayaks, at the lake. The city is in the process of receiving proposals from businesses. It is unlikely food concessions will be available.
How will the lake be policed? The city and La Plata County Sheriff’s Office both have boats at the lake to use when needed.
City staff may patrol the water on busy days, such as holidays or weekends.
“We’ll see what the use patterns are, and then we’ll staff accordingly,” Metz said.
City staff will remind visitors of good behavior, and if necessary, call law enforcement, she said.
The city can also assist visitors who need help, for example, boaters who become caught in a wind storm.
The Sheriff’s Office boat would be on hand to help in emergencies and for patrols, she said.
The Durango Police Department also plans regular patrols, she said.
Will the city reconsider how it operates the lake?The city will document how visitors use the lake and survey visitors about their user-experience, Metz said.
Community members can also contact the city directly with suggestions and feedback by emailing email@example.com.
Feedback and use of the lake will guide any changes the city makes, she said. Durango City Council expects to revisit the management of the lake this summer.
What are the rules for dogs? Dogs are allowed. But they must be kept on a leash. They are also allowed on boats. But they are not allowed to run into the lake and swim. The city is talking with the Bureau of Reclamation and the Animas La Plata Operation, Maintenance and Replacement Association about the possibility of establishing a play area for dogs to swim, Metz said.
What are the rules for visitors?Lake Nighthorse is governed by the rules that apply to city parks. These rules differ from Colorado state parks. Here are some examples:
No alcohol is allowed.No glass containers.No fires allowed. Visitors must not disturb archaeological sites.Visitors cannot go 25 feet beyond the high water mark of the lake. No drones are allowed. Visitors can request authorization to use a drone from the Bureau of Reclamation, Metz said. How much parking is available?The city has space for 80 vehicles to park at the lake this weekend. The city plans to stage additional cars on County Road 212, if necessary, and will allow them to park once other cars leave. Other vehicles may be staged closer to Durango, Metz said. No one will be permitted to park on County Road 210. When the overflow lot is complete in May, there will be 108 parking spaces. There will be 67 spaces that can accommodate trailers and 41 spaces for cars.
How much does it cost to get in?Annual vehicle pass: $70Annual vehicle pass for seniors: $60Annual bike or walk-in pass: $20Vehicle day pass: $8Bike or walk-in pass: $3Families purchasing multiple annual vehicle passes can receive discounts after purchasing the first pass.
More information about the lake can be found at durangogov.org/LakeNighthorse.