Opening Lake Nighthorse for recreation has been as tough a sell as getting the construction of its home – a 1,500-surface acre reservoir in Ridges Basin – approved and built in the first place.
In fact, even now with a glimmer of progress possible, it would be easy, if one is so inclined, to say the project has been hexed from the beginning.
The beginning was in 1968, when Congress authorized the Animas-La Plata Project to provide water from the Animas River for homes, industry and irrigation in Colorado and New Mexico.
But from there, it’s been all uphill – right up to today. Politics, protests, problematic engineering and protection for the pikeminnow have occasioned one delay after another.
Holding up the ability of boaters and bathers today to get onto and into the frigid water of the lake – three years after it was filled to the brim – are issues related to operating the park.
The parties involved are the city of Durango, which wants to manage recreation; the Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the project; the Operations, Maintenance and Replacement Association representing water users is concerned about water quality; and three sovereign Native American tribes, which want protection of sacred ground.
The city wants to annex the property to allow police patrols. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe oppose annexation, saying recreational activity would occur where buried cultural artifacts remain, and they want to exercise 140-year-old Brunot Treaty rights to hunt and fish on ancestral land.
The stalemate could end soon, says Cathy Metz, director of recreation for the city. The city last week offered a new plan that would reduce the footprint of the project, consolidating recreation on the east side of the lake.
“We’re talking with the bureau, the tribes and the association,” Metz said. “The tribes are concerned about cultural resources, and we’re respectful of their heritage.
“The public is anxious to use the lake,” Metz said. “But (a recreation plan) needs to be done right, so we’re going slow.”
In the offer the city made last week, a trail system, the swimming beach and campgrounds would join the boat-launching area on the east side of the lake.
Visitors enter the recreation area from the east side. There they will find a reception booth and a boat inspection and decontamination station.
The entrance facilities are being designed, with construction expected to start in spring 2015, Metz said.
Russ Howard, general manager of the OMRA, said matters are moving along.
“There’s definitely been progress,” Howard said. “But it takes time.”
Howard said avoiding locations of cultural resources is not easy.
“It’s hard to find a place where cultural resources is not an issue,” he said.
Ed Warner, area director of the Bureau of Reclamation in Western Colorado, said Friday the bureau is working with all parties.
“There’s no 100 percent agreement, but we’ve got some momentum going,” Warner said from Grand Junction, referring to the city of Durango’s conciliatory move.
A lease agreement with his agency will be required to oversee recreation, but he is OK with Durango as the manager if all issues are worked out, Warner said.
Agreement on annexation, protection of water quality and conservation of prehistoric artifacts is critical, Warner said.
Exercise of Brunot Treaty rights has to conform to conditions existing today, Warner said.
Randy Kirkpatrick, general manager of the Farmington-based San Juan Water Commission, agrees that matters are moving along.
The commission doesn’t oppose recreation as long as it gets the water it needs and the quality isn’t compromised, Kirkpatrick said.
“The complexity of this issue is at the highest level,” Kirkpatrick said. “We’re working diligently, and we’re moving as quickly as we can.”