Smoothing out Lake Nighthorse
Recreation compromise starts to take shape

  A car crosses over the dam at Lake Nighthorse last week. Planners are continuing to hammer out a recreation plan for the reservoir, with the most contentious issue being the use of motorized watercraft. The most popular opinion has been motorized use with restrictions on size, type and usage times./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Leslie Swanson

Lake Nighthorse, Durango’s next big attraction, is making waves in the local community. When fully built out, the brand new body of water is expected to draw 163,000 visitors a year – bringing millions of tourist dollars and approximately 165 jobs to Durango’s cash-strapped shores. The reservoir’s potential benefits are hard to ignore, but so are the possible nuisances.

Motorized sports top many residents’ list of concerns. People who prefer a serene, natural setting are repulsed by the noise and pollution associated with speedboats and ATVs. Neighbors in nearby subdivisions are also worried about the park-goers themselves, from wandering hikers to partying college kids and the homeless. A few people who opposed the reservoir’s creation still want that dam to come down. So, before even opening the gates, this park has had its share of unhappy campers.

Smoothing out as many wrinkles as possible is the goal of Lake Nighthorse recreation planners. Public acceptance is, they say, a key component of the plan’s success. To that end, they have made participation in the decision-making process available through open houses, public forums, design workshops and a website where people can post comments and see everyone else’s as well.

A review of public opinions expressed so far reveals that most people are willing to compromise on motors. Of all the comments received by DHM Design, the reservoir’s primary planning entity, 22 voted for no motors at all, 37 supported unrestricted motorized sports, and 38 were OK with some form of engine, as long as they are limited in horsepower, area and/or schedule. An electric-only restriction on motors was very popular among the latter group.

Joy Lujan, of the National Park Service, has been facilitating the public planning process. She explained that they are approaching a resolution by dealing with the individual components of anti-motor sentiments: primarily noise, pollution and wakes. By designating separate areas, restricting engine decibels, banning fueling stations and inspecting boats for invasive mussels, the lake’s planners believe that they can resolve anti-motor issues. The two ends of the sporting spectrum can4 peacefully co-exist, they claim, but no gas motors at all? That’s looking like a no-go.

Here is where the water gets choppy: With all the outreach and open access of the current planning process, one large and lasting decision appears to have been made with very little public input – construction of the boat ramp. Paid for by a Wallop-Breaux grant of $3 million from the State of Colorado, the ramp came with a contingency: it must allow use by gas-powered boats within three years of completion or the Bureau of Reclamation has to return the money. At a public forum last November, a bureau representative stated that repayment was not likely, in effect making motorized boating a done deal regardless of opposition. Such mandates tend to stir discontent and mistrust, and the boat ramp has caused significant local agitation.

Mark Chiarito, of the Bureau of Rec, expressed desire to resolve the confusion and offered the following explanation about the decision to construct the boat ramp: “In order to open the reservoir to public use in a timely manner, the Bureau of Reclamation and the State agreed on the need to solicit interest from other nonfederal entities to provide recreation at Lake Nighthorse. Hence, the current community planning process is being conducted and the boat ramp needs to be considered as a valid existing facility for inclusion in the recreation master plan.”

Lujan added, “It was more than just the grant. Most people understood that a shared solution was the only way to address the array of public desires.”

When will the lake be ready for visitors? According to Chiarito, the reservoir’s opening date is subject to Bureau of Rec approval and “a qualified non-federal entity” to develop and manage it. In other words, don’t dust off your water-wings just yet, Lake Nighthorse will not be open this summer.

Now that the meetings are over and planners are writing the draft plan, those who persevered through the public process agree it has been a group effort. Not only motorized boating, but issues around camping, hunting, horses, wildlife and wildfires were discussed. Since then, according to Lujan and other participants, opposing sides have softened their stances and come to compromises.

Terry Tucker, owner of Splash Down Diving in Durango, has attended most of the Lake Nighthorse public meetings since October. Despite his admitted bias for scuba diving, Tucker feels that the public portion of the planning has been equitable. At first, he reports, people were determined to stick to their viewpoints. However, as the meetings and workshops proceeded, they were able to meet somewhere in the middle.

“Everyone had a chance to voice their opinion and every opinion was considered,” Tucker said. After much discussion and back and forth, especially in the design workshops, the groups came together and hammered out a plan. He added that Lujan should be given a big dose of credit for keeping the meetings on track even when tempers ran high.

“They did run a fair program,” fellow participant Scott Kurlander added. “They brought in specialists on noise, wildlife, fish, hunting, swimming, handicapped access and other issues.”

Ultimately the facilities themselves will dictate the uses, he explained: the slope of the land, the weather and the fact that there will be times when reservoir levels fluctuate, based on how much water is being pulled out. In fact, early recommendations include designation of a 50 percent wake-free zone at high water and having the entire lake as a wake-free zone at minimum water level.

While he said he hopes for a variety of recreation optionsat the lake, Kurlander felt that concerns about wildlife and motorboats have been addressed. In the end, “Nobody got everything they wanted. Everyone made concessions. We had no choice but to work together.”

While the design workshops are over, the public meetings are not. The next one, set for mid-April, will provide an update on the master plan’s progress. The session will offer construction costs for basic elements including a day use marina, picnic structures, parking lots, trails, rest rooms, camp grounds, fishing areas, and a swim beach. In addition, planners will reveal the results of a study on the noise of potential uses – and motor boats in particular. •

There is still time for Durangoans to offer their two cents. To comment or catch up on the planning process so far, visit



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