On paper, the boat dock, trails and other amenities that would fulfill common dreams for Lake Nighthorse have support from all the groups that govern the area. But questions about maintaining water quality and protecting archaeological sites remain to be solved.
For those who have been waiting to enjoy the lake since it was filled in 2011, ongoing negotiations that involve nine groups with water rights in the lake have been painful.
“That’s been extremely frustrating to watch as a recreationist and a business owner,” said Tony Miely, co-owner of 4Corners Riversports.
Miely believes the lake should be open because it was paid for with public money, and it’s going to be an extremely popular place for locals and tourists.
When the Animas River’s running muddy, Casey Lynch, a local advocate, said it’s the perfect alternative for fishermen. He’s disappointed the conglomerate that manages the lake has been holding up progress.
“Somebody needs to step up and make it work,” he said.
A compromise on recreation that limits activity to the north and east side of the lake, spearheaded by the city of Durango, may be evidence of progress.
The groups tentatively reached a compromise this spring that would allow the city to manage recreation.
The members of the association that manages the lake are Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District, the city of Durango, Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority, La Plata Conservancy District, the Navajo Nation, San Juan Water Commission, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
Limiting recreation’s footprint
The city estimates that user fees and recreation fees will cover 90 percent of the $200,000 in annual operating budget. The city and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which built and operates the dam, may cover the deficit, said Cathy Metz, the city’s director of parks and recreation.
The city’s 2011 master plan had a much broader area designated for recreation, including trails all around the lake, but that raised concerns for the Ute Mountain Utes and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, who own water rights in the lake.
Lake Nighthorse was built to fulfill treaties with tribes in New Mexico and Colorado, and the area has a long history of indigenous occupation. Many archaeological sites remain.
“Having a large footprint for recreation we think is inconsistent with protecting those resources,” said Peter Ortego, the general council for the Ute Mountain Utes.
Currently, initial construction calls for a boat dock at the ramp, road improvement, overflow parking and signs on the east side of the lake.
The shoreline would be open to the public, but visitors could not walk more than 25 feet from the water’s edge.
The city already has state funding for the initial phase of construction.
A swim beach, natural surface trails, breakwater, camping and picnic areas would be phased in later.
But before any construction can start, the Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the property, must complete an environmental assessment of the proposed recreational uses. The agency has already been in contact with the contractor that would complete that study, said Ed Warner, the area manager for the bureau.
This assessment was put on hold until all groups could agree on a recreational plan.
The bureau is also working on a plan to help protect the archaeological sites that exist in that area.
However, before the city can start managing recreation at the lake, three key documents must be signed: a lease, an annexation agreement and a planning-and-development memorandum of understanding.
The city would annex only the areas where recreation would take place so the Durango Police Department could patrol the area.
Lawyers are working to resolve questions around water quality, law enforcement in unannexed areas and control of future development, so the documents can be signed.
“I am not aware that anything is resolved yet,” Ortego said.
Protecting water quality in the lake is a priority for all the partners, and the association hopes to have a discussion soon about how the water can be protected and plans for dealing with contamination. Lawyers are also determining who would be legally responsible for pollution.
“We want to have everything in place prior to it opening,” said Priscilla Blackhawk-Rentz, a Ute Mountain Ute tribal council member.
Since 2009, the Bureau of Reclamation has sampled water quality periodically at Lake Nighthorse to establish a baseline for purity.
Enforcing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the federal law against marijuana use are also concerning to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Blackhawk-Rentz said.
“The city police will secure the area, OK. But how about the federal laws that are going to be broken?” she asked Warner at a meeting of all the partners in March.
Currently, the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office would respond to emergencies at the lake and Bureau of Reclamation would investigate vandalism to archaeological sites or Native American artifacts.
The memorandum of understanding allows all the groups to be involved in approving future recreation development outside of the current plan, Metz said.
Last year, a bureau representative said the agreements were close to being signed, and this year, officials believe the same.
“I think we are all wearing down and getting close,” said Scott McElroy, an attorney representing the Southern Ute Tribe.
But progress will likely be made on infrastructure this year. The bureau plans to start construction on a station where boats would be inspected for invasive species such as zebra mussels. An environmental assessment already has been completed on this project, and it will be funded with a $500,000 grant.