For the past five years, Lake Nighthorse has sat quietly empty just southwest of
Durango, taunting potential users who could only look at the “No Trespassing” signs at the gates. With the release of the draft recreation plan, though, things might be moving toward a 2017 opening./Photos by Jennaye Derge

Floating a plan

Key steps taken toward opening Lake Nighthorse by summer 2017

by Tracy Chamberlin

This time it’s a little more than just idle talk. With the release of an official plan from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and a comment period ending April 25, the gates to Lake Nighthorse might be opening after all.

Well, maybe next summer.

“It certainly is an important step in the process,” said Cathy Metz, parks and recreation director for the City of Durango, which would be the recreation manager for Lake Nighthorse under the draft plan.

Something to talk about

To view the draft plan for Lake Nighthorse, visit:
To add your voice to the conversation or get a copy of the draft plan, contact: or 248-0625.

It’s been a long, long road to get to this point. For decades the federal government and tribal leaders wrestled over water rights, ultimately creating the Animas-La Plata Project and its governing body in the 1980s.

It took a couple more decades to come to an agreement on the concept for the dam and reservoir at Ridges Basin, later named Lake Nighthorse after Ignacio Sen. Ben Nighthorse-Campbell, R-Colo., who was key in helping all parties come to an agreement on the A-LP Project.

By the turn of the century, talk had turned to trails, campsites, fishing, boating, swimming and beaches, but the reservoir didn’t see a drop of water until 2009. Once it was full, in 2011, the possibility of enjoying the area seemed within reach.

But for the past five years, the lake has sat quietly just southwest of Durango, taunting potential users who could only stare at the chains and “No Trespassing” signs at the gates.

Community frustration over an opening delayed year after year even inspired the creation of an Occupy Nighthorse movement a couple of years ago.

“This process takes time to make sure everyone’s voice is heard,” said Justyn Liff, spokesperson for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Western Colorado Area Office.

And, there are plenty of voices.

The table of stakeholders has 24 tribes, including the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Utes; organizations like the Animas-La Plata Operations, Maintenance and Replacement Association, or ALPOMRA; leaders from Durango and La Plata County; state officials from Colorado and New Mexico; congressional representatives; and eight federal agencies, including the Bureau of Reclamation, which is spearheading the project.

Then there are the voices of area residents. In the draft plan, results of a June 2010 study point to strong local and regional support for recreation at Lake Nighthorse, like boating, fishing, camping, swimming and trails.

Those involved with the project have said they are aware of the public’s desire to open the lake, but Liff explained this must be balanced with the need to protect all the elements that would be affected by the public’s presence.

From golden eagles to cultural treasures, the goal is to find the sweet spot between protection and access. Ultimately, though, the lake’s primary purpose is to provide water. Recreation is secondary.

Fixes planned at Whitewater Park

Work on intake, Ponderosa and Clocktower set to start next fall

Once the river season is over and the water flows hit their annual lows, the city is planning to make some changes to the Whitewater Park near Santa Rita.

First on the list is what is known as a “headcutting” situation, which is moving the water flow away from an intake pipe at Santa Rita, a primary source of water for the city, and toward the Dog Park on river right.

It’s something that’s been happening for quite some time, but recent design changes made to upgrade the Whitewater Park accelerated the process, explained Cathy Metz, parks and recreation director for the city of Durango.

The city gets most of its water from the Florida River, but during the lean summer months it turns to the Animas to supplement the supply. In order to make sure that’s still an option, the flow needs to be shifted back to the pipe, on river left.

“We want to make sure we can pull out of the Animas any time of year,” Metz said.

Second on the list is the Ponderosa and Clocktower structures in the Whitewater Park, which have become a little too powerful, flipping boats at high water.

Plans call for widening the sides of the structures so the hydraulics are less powerful but the recreational experiences are still the same.

The City will first tackle the intake pipe project, which is expected to take three months, sometime in September and October. Once complete, work will move to Ponderosa and Clocktower, which is expected to take a couple weeks.

Tracy Chamberlin

The Draft Environmental Assessment and Lake Nighthorse Recreation Plan, released last month by the Bureau of Reclamation’s Western Colorado Area Office, offers up four possible alternatives: the proposed action, two alternatives and a no action option, which is required by law.

The proposed action is the one they are looking to implement. It’s also the one with the smallest recreation footprint. 

“Under the Proposed Action, development would be limited to the minimum facilities necessary to open the area to the public,” the plan reads.

Specifically, the facilities allowed without further approval are an overflow parking area, courtesy dock system for the existing boat ramp and a trail connecting the two. That’s it.

The lake would be open for day-use only with access limited to the eastern side and a 25-foot buffer around the entire lakeshore. Visitors would be allowed to picnic, swim and fish from the shoreline and boats. Both non-motorized and motorized boats would be allowed.

“Motorized boating is anticipated to be one of the primary drivers of recreation at Lake Nighthorse,” the draft plan reads.

Everything is subject to seasonal closure with boating prohibited from mid-November to mid-May.

The proposed action does allow for future development, including a campsite, swim beach, trail system and overnight use of the area. All of those facilities, however, would need additional environmental assessment and approval.

Another part of the future discussion is tribal hunting rights. The recreation plan acknowledges tribes’ Brunot Treaty Rights, but defers a decision on hunting “because it requires further discussion and coordination,” according to the plan’s authors.

For Metz, one of the most enlightening aspects of her work on the project has been the discussions with tribal leaders. “People don’t often recognize that these tribes are sovereign nations,” she said.  “There’s a lot of history here.”

Durango is the key to the project. The city is going to be in charge of day-to-day operations and enforcement as the recreation manager, and the lands allowed for recreation under the proposed action would be annexed to
Durango for that purpose.

But in order to make the 2017 deadline, the Bureau of Reclamation needs to complete its part first.

Liff said the agency will see what issues or areas of concern need to be addressed once all the comments are received by the April 25 deadline. Then it can
release a final plan and complete the necessary steps required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

As for necessary infrastructure, the big one is the decontamination station for boats. It’s critical to preventing the introduction and spread of invasive aquatic species into the lake. Metz said preparations for that are moving forward this year.

The other facilities allowed under the proposed action would need to be evaluated, she added. The city doesn’t want to have hazards or other safety concerns.

But much like the process so far, it’s all about finding balance.

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