The argument for recreation at Lake Nighthorse has been raised again on the national stage.
U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Cory Gardner, R-Colo.; and Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, recently penned a letter to Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Estevan López requesting open access to Lake Nighthorse at the earliest possible date.
The reservoir was completed in 2011, but the area has remained closed while members of the managing association negotiate plans for recreation.
The three members of Congress encouraged the bureau to make opening the lake to recreation a priority because of its potential economic impact.
Recreation at Lake Nighthorse could stimulate upward of $12 million in annual economic benefits for La Plata County, a report commissioned by the Animas La Plata Water Conservancy District found.
The officials also lauded all the members of the Animas-La Plata Project’s Operation, Maintenance and Replacement Association for writing letters in support of the city of Durango’s draft recreational plan.
“Given this momentum, we encourage the bureau to expedite and prioritize its environmental analysis of the proposal, which would clear the way to open the lake to public access,” the letter stated.
The members of the association include the Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District, the city of Durango, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority, La Plata Conservancy District, the Navajo Nation, the San Juan Water Commission, Southern Ute Indian Tribe and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
“We urge the bureau to redouble their efforts to analyze and adopt an agreeable plan that will open Lake Nighthorse to recreational access as soon as possible,” the letter stated. “We look forward to your response including a timeline for next steps and to the resolution of this issue.”
Bennet and former U.S. Sen. Mark Udall sent a similar letter last year.
“We are definitely continuing to make progress, and we are definitely ahead of where we were last year,” said Justyn Hock, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation.
Now that all the partners in the project have expressed support for recreation, the bureau can start an environmental assessment of recreational plans. When that draft is available, the public will be invited to comment on it.
“We are doing everything we can,” she said.
The environmental assessment process was started a few years ago, but it was put on hold after the partners expressed concerns about maintaining water quality, safety and archaeological sites near the lake, if it opened for recreation.
The reservoir was built to fulfill water treaty agreements with the three tribes involved in the project. The tribes, in particular, expressed concern about preserving the archaeological sites around the lake.
The agency also is working on a cultural resource management plan that will outline concrete steps to protect historical sites.
This could include fencing, signs and a plan on who to call if vandalism to archaeological sites did occur, Hock said.
Michael Cipriano is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.