Is a pipeline the best option to deliver water from Lake Nighthorse?

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times
A dedication ceremony last May celebrated the public opening of Lake Nighthorse in Durango, Colorado. Now a commission is considering building a pipeline to guarantee delivery of water to some New Mexico utilities in case of a future drought.

FARMINGTON — The San Juan Water Commission must decide if building a pipeline to protect from water contamination and ensure water is delivered during drought is worth the millions of dollars that would cost.

The commission is debating the best way to get water from Lake Nighthorse in Durango, Colorado, to water users in northwest New Mexico.

Currently the water must be delivered using the Animas River. None of the local utilities have received water released from Lake Nighthorse.

That nearly changed last fall when the Animas River was running at a trickle. Farmington requested water from Lake Nighthorse. Ultimately, the city canceled its requests.

No guarantees the river can deliver

While Colorado has promised that it will ensure water released from Lake Nighthorse reaches Cedar Hill, there is no guarantee that the water will not be diverted by other water users before it reaches diversions for water utilities.

“We’re assuming that delivery down the Animas is going to get water to us,” said Commissioner Jack Scott, who represents the City of Bloomfield. “And that’s a huge assumption.”

The pipeline would eliminate water losses to evaporation, seepage or theft.

It could also safeguard water quality. Studies have shown the Animas River has high levels of fecal-related bacteria due to leaking septic systems. A pipeline would bypass those septic systems. And the pipeline could increase the amount of time local utilities could keep their head gates closed if the Animas River becomes contaminated by mine waste, like the Gold King Mine spill in 2015.

During the Gold King Mine spill, Farmington kept its head gates closed for more than 20 days. The city has between 90 and 120 days of storage in Lake Farmington, but other local utilities do not have as much.

The Animas River, seen in this 2018 file photo at Riverside Park in Aztec, can carry water from Lake Nighthorse, but there is no guarantee water utilities in New Mexico can capture it past the community of Cedar Hill.

Lower Valley Water Users Association Manager Keith Lee said he relied on pumping water from Farmington to make it through the 14-day mandatory closure of head gates. He said there was still a week’s worth of water in the Lower Valley reservoir when he opened head gates because Farmington helped.

Another advantage of a pipeline is that it could directly deliver Animas-La Plata water to utilities located above the confluence on the San Juan River, including City of Bloomfield, Lee Acres and West Hammond.

Big price tag for pipeline

However, the pipeline will also be very expensive. A large diameter pipeline could cost about $173.8 million, according to the alternatives development study released in 2016. It will also take time to build, including acquiring right of way to install the pipe.

Consultant Rick Cox said it may not be cost effective to build a pipeline if it's only going to be used once every 20 or 30 years.

In contrast, it costs very little to release the water into the river and send it to local water utilities, however that cannot protect water supplies from contamination.

Other options the water commission is considering include increasing storage options in San Juan County. That could allow the water to be released into the river when needed to refill storage reservoirs. It would also increase the amount of time the utilities could keep their head gates closed.

The water commission also discussed working with the Office of the State Engineer to ensure people are not taking more water than they have been allocated and to prevent people without water rights from taking the water.

“You need to control the water first before you get too deep in expensive scenarios,” said Commissioner Jim Dunlap, who represents rural water users.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at

A map provided by the San Juan Water Commission shows the proposed pipeline from Lake Nighthorse.