The shape of Lake Nighthorse
The fate of local reservoir recreation goes up for debate

Lake Nighthorse fills in Ridges Basin, south of Durango. The reservoir is expected to be filled by next summer, however the issue of recreation is still murky. A planning group is embarking on a recreation plan for the reservoir. Ideas bieng floated include motorized boats, camping and trails, among other possibilities./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Leslie Swanson

Whether you were for or against it, Lake Nighthorse is on the way. After decades of debate, the controversial Animas-La Plata Water Project is almost complete. By this time next year, the reservoir could be full. But will there be recreation at Lake Nighthorse?

More than 5,000 acres of land, with 1,490 surface acres of water, less than 2 miles from a town full of outdoor sports enthusiasts? Think about it.

A recently released pair of studies from Durango’s RPI Consulting indicate that Lake Nighthorse could draw approximately 163,000 visitors a year to the area with nearly $8 million to spend on food, lodging, gas, supplies and, of course, souvenirs. In addition, 165 local tourism-based jobs could be created. By 2025, the report ventures, Lake Nighthorse’s attractions could bring 230 jobs and $10.8 million a year to area businesses.

But a recreation plan requires funding and there is little available. In 2008, the state announced that it would not be developing or managing a park at the lake, leaving the Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District (ALPWCD) and the reservoir’s other sponsors with a choice: either fence it off from the public or come up with a plan – and funding – on their own. The choice was obvious. The potential gains are so solid that the Lake Nighthorse recreation plan is moving forward and gaining momentum.

To create the plan, ALPWCD has enlisted a number of consultants, led by DHM Design. Using an environmental impact study from 2000, DHM and the design team conducted a brief site analysis/study of possible recreation types that would work well on (and for) the reservoir. The team is hoping to coordinate its plan with public outreach over the coming months.

To this end, the National Park Service has offered the assistance of a staff person, Joy Lujan, to manage outreach for the fledgling recreation plan. Her task is to develop and coordinate local participation in the planning process. Public acceptance is one of the crucial factors for the plan’s success, Lujan says.

The first step will be for the planning group to meet with individual interest groups – boaters, hunters, neighbors, etc. – in order to hear all sides of the issues. Then they will conduct a multi-day design workshop, with area landscape architects and related professionals. This event will be open to the public, with an open house afterwards for review and comments. Then the planning team will take all this information away and come back with a master plan, on which the Bureau of Reclamation will have the final say.

What will Reclamation be looking for in a recreation plan? “Something environmentally and public-friendly,” said Dave Gates, Public Outreach Coordinator for the Bureau’s A-LP Construction Office. Water quality, protection from invasive species and, of course, safety are the main concerns.

Consequently, one of the few certainties in Lake Nighthorse’s future plan will be an on-site staff, including park rangers to enforce regulations. Other likelihoods will be an inspection station to check incoming boats for invasive species, and other measures to avoid accidental contamination of the water.

And then there’s the Lake Nighthorse boat ramp, now partially submerged, which has already launched a shipload of controversy. Built with a $3 million federal grant, which dictates the ramp must be used by motorized boats or there must be some form of motorized boating in the Lake’s master plan within three years. At a public meeting early in March of last year, many residents complained about the conditional grant. They proposed returning the money until there was agreement about what kind of motorized boating would be allowed. But the reservoir was filling and the ramp needed to be built right away. So the ramp was built. End of discussion.

Mac Musick lives close to Lake Nighthorse in Trapper’s Crossing and is not thrilled at the prospect of hearing motorboats day and night. He tried to get his neighborhood homeowner’s association to take a stand, but they voted to stay neutral, even though most of the subdivision members would prefer a motor-free lake and park. Using gasoline motors on the reservoir seems unwise to Musick. “If it’s for drinking and irrigation, you don’t want petroleum in it,” he suggested.

Even if his experience at past public discussions and the boat ramp issue has made him “a little cynical,” Musick said that he remains hopeful. “Lakes are wonderful. Being this close to town, it could really be used as a recreation area for picnics, hiking, biking, swimming and canoeing. It could be a great resource.”

However, Gates and the Bureau of Reclamation countered that the public need not be too concerned about motorboats at Lake Nighthorse. There may be limits on their size, noise, horsepower, area of use and/or schedules. Ridges Basin will not be transformed into an aquatic speedway. DHM’s Ann Christensen also offered assurance. “We’re really expecting this to be a classic reservoir recreation area with a light touch,” she said. “It’s really gorgeous out there, and no one wants to ruin it.”

Gates pointed out a potential beach near the ramp, and the location of possible future campsites and a nonmotorized boating area across the lake. The dam and Basin Creek, below the dam, will be completely off-limits, thanks to Homeland Security requirements. Strategically located cameras will be keeping a watchful eye 24-7.

Has anyone ever tried to sabotage the project? “No,” Gates replied. “Our biggest issue is trespassing.”

Renegade recreation aside, there has been little organized protest of the project recently, other than a few irate rafters pulling their pants down while passing the water intake plant. And for those who prefer to express themselves verbally?

“Watch for the meetings,” Gates advised.

As soon as they have some funding in hand, possibly within the next few weeks, Lujan and the design team will start scheduling face-to-face meetings and the open design workshop. There will be opportunities for e-mail and snail-mail comments too, but if you really feel strongly one way or the other, coming to the meetings would be best.

“We hope providing an opportunity to have multiple interest groups in the room at the same time will give us a more accurate feel for the balance/distribution of opinions than we might get if we were relying solely upon the amount of mail we got regarding a particular use,” Lujan pointed out.

There are many other points to discuss besides the bugaboo of motorized sports. Alternative energy, for example, or how about an off-grid park? Or a cultural center? What about a shuttle bus from town instead of a giant parking lot? Handicapped fishing piers, platform nests for waterfowl, cross-country ski trails, a rowing club for Fort Lewis College?

All of these ideas came from the March 2009 public meeting, and there’s still room for more. The designers will consider anything within the limits of the 2000 Environmental Impact Study, economic reality and common sense.

While not everyone is going to be happy with the ultimate plan, everyone is invited to have a say. Will Lake Nighthorse win over the public that fought so hard to stop it? That will depend on how loudly they speak. Stay tuned. •

Groups or organizations wanting to meet with the designers can e-mail