Durango reservoir to host boating, outdoor activities

By Chuck Slothower

Four Corners Business Journal

IGNACIO, Colo. Lake Nighthorse, a new U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reservoir near Durango, could open to boating as soon as next summer, providing an economic boost to the area.

The main hurdle for the project is finding an agency willing to manage recreation at the lake, but the city of Durango is moving toward taking on that role, pending City Council approval.

Two advisory boards to the City Council are evaluating whether the city government should manage the area. Those boards are expected to make a recommendation to the council Nov. 9. City Council action could soon follow.

Cathy Metz, Parks and Recreation director for the city, believes the operation can break even. If the lake operates at a loss, the Bureau of Reclamation will compensate the city for half of those losses, Metz said.

"This could become a reality for our community," Metz said at the La Plata Economic Development Alliance's fifth annual economic summit held at Sky Ute Casino Resort on Wednesday.

The city of Durango, if it takes on managing the lake, plans to charge a fee of $5 per car for access. Season passes will be $50.

The reservoir will complement other area amenities, such as the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, planners said at the economic development summit.

It will serve some of the same uses as Navajo Lake, Vallecito Reservoir and Lemon Reservoir, but much closer to Durango.

"From downtown Durango, this is closer than the hospital," said Bob Wolff, who serves on the Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy board. "It's a significant opportunity for the community that we weren't willing to pass up."

The reservoir was filled in July. It remains closed, with "no trespassing" signs posted, until an agency steps in to manage recreation there.

The lake is named for former Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

According to a draft recreation plan created by DHM Design of Durango, the reservoir will create an estimated 165 jobs through increased economic activity.

The recreation plan estimates the lake will attract 163,000 user days annually. By comparison, Navajo Lake hosts approximately 800,000 user days annually.

Once open, the reservoir is expected to provide a home for boating, fishing, hiking and mountain biking.

For boaters, the reservoir will be open to motorized boats, although a small area will be set aside for sailboats. Jet skis will be banned, as well as boats with above-waterline open-air exhaust systems. Depending on various approvals, the reservoir would be open to boating April 1 through Nov. 15.

The lake is stocked with trout and Kokanee salmon for fishing.

For trail enthusiasts, about 15 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails will be constructed. The Durango trails advocacy group, Trails 2000, has been closely involved in planning for trails at the reservoir.

Plans for the reservoir followed a long public process. Residents raised concerns about noise, safety, water quality and wildlife. Some thought the lake should be reserved for wildlife, while others wanted jet skis. The recreation plan lands somewhere in between, said Katie Nelson of DHM Design.

Wolff said many ideas were "beaten up" in the process, but most people wanted to put Lake Nighthorse to use.

"What we heard from the public in our process was, get the lake open, get the lake open, get the lake open," Wolff said.

Some residents were unhappy because the reservoir flooded Ridges Basin, an out-of-the way area popular among hikers.

"People were angry," said Joy Lujan, an official with the National Park Service Rivers, Trails and Conservation assistance program in Denver. "People were not happy that there was a reservoir up there at all."

Lujan said the plans reflect the community's consensus.

"Durango did something most communities don't or can't they came together from very polarized perspectives," she said.

If decision makers come together quickly, the lake could open for use in 2012. If not, the opening date could slip until 2013, Metz said.