There was more than met the ear to recent statements by Bruce Whitehead, executive director of the Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District, that his agency stands ready to help provide recreation at Lake Nighthorse.
The subliminal message became loud and clear Thursday when district board members voted to tackle the job themselves. They are acting because Colorado State Parks, the logical manager of recreation, said last summer - and reiterated recently - that it has no money for such an undertaking at a cost estimated at $20 million to $25 million.
Many issues remain to be resolved, board members said Thursday, but five volunteered to be an exploratory subcommittee.
Board members were buoyed by a report from Marsha Porter-Norton, who facilitated a public meeting March 5 to discuss recreation at Lake Nighthorse. The meeting attracted 170 people.
Lake Nighthorse is the body of water that will be formed when Ridges Basin Reservoir, located three miles southwest of Durango, is filled. The reservoir, which will hold 120,000 acre-feet of water, was created to settle Native American water-right claims.
Porter-Norton said the level of public support for recreation at the lake that was evident March 5 and the willingness of residents to work toward the goal is a good omen. Leadership by the district could garner support from others, she said.
"Success begets success," Porter-Norton said. "If the district leads and proposes a recreation plan that attracts partners, the cost may not be out of reach."
Board chairman Bob Wolff said the district may have to adjust its budget and form some partnerships if the plan moves forward.
"No one other than us has done anything in a contemporary manner," he said.
La Plata County is supportive but not "aboard" and the city of Durango is going to put its money into developing a white-water park at Smelter Rapids, Wolff said.
Board vice chairman Joe Colgan said the district should not "make this just another park. Let's make it unique."
The district spent $5,000 on the March 5 public meeting and has an equal amount in reserve for similar activities. But no mention was made Thursday of how much playing the lead role for Lake Nighthorse recreation would cost.
The abstract of La Plata County taxes shows the district had revenue of almost $192,000 in 2008. A single-family house with an actual value of $300,000 contributed $5.40 to the total. The owner of the same single-family house would pay an additional $5.16 to the Southwestern Water Conservation District, which collects taxes in all or part of nine counties.
When board members meet in May in Marvel they'd like to hear three reports:•A formal summation of Porter-Norton's report about public suggestions for recreation at the March 5 meeting.
•A report from Barry Spear, the district's legal counsel, on whether the district would be within state statutes governing water districts if it expands into the recreation field. Also he will look at whether the district could create a separate enterprise to deal with recreation.
"It's quite a leap, but it's possible," Spear said Thursday of the district getting into recreation. "I need to review the statutes."
•A report from the subcommittee about what it has learned.
Porter-Norton suggested hiring a recreation consultant but said that before that's done, the board must know what it wants in the way of recreation. Only a boat ramp, funded from different sources, is a given. State Sen. Jim Isgar was able to get $750,000 of severance taxes that was used to win $2.25 million in Wallop-Breaux funding. Wallop-Breaux money comes from a federal tax on motorboats and small engines.
Board members Thursday also appeared to like the idea of a having at the lake a display of the archeological items recovered before work on Ridges Basin Reservoir dam began. A team from SWCA Environmental Consultants spent five years in the basin, recovering more than 800,000 items - from shards of pottery to entire objects - related to the prehistoric society that flourished there from 750 to 825 A.D.
In addition to boating, a 2000 environmental study described a recreation area with 196 campsites and 38 picnic areas, 10 miles of trails and fishing. The park could accommodate 1,980 visitors at a time, 218,000 user days a year.