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Water Commission may request Lake Nighthorse water release if 'stars align'

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times

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AZTEC — The San Juan Water Commission authorized Director Aaron Chavez to request a release from Lake Nighthorse in an attempt to capture that water for San Juan County residents — if the conditions are right.

The San Juan Water Commission hopes to someday have a pipeline that can reduce the losses from the river if a release from Lake Nighthorse is requested. However that pipeline does not yet exist.

That means the only way to deliver water from Lake Nighthorse to the City of Farmington is through the Animas River, and that has never been tried before..

Lake Nighthorse, located in Durango, Colorado, stores water as part of the Animas-La Plata Project. The San Juan County Commission discussed requesting a release from Lake Nighthorse.

The City of Farmington requested the action as it hopes to gather data while the river levels are low and the irrigators are not pulling water out of the river, the city's Community Works Director David Sypher explained during the Feb. 3 meeting.

“I don’t anticipate we’re going to be able to gather all the information we would hope for in one release, but we do need to start somewhere,” Sypher said.

More:Meetings: San Juan Water Commission to discuss release from Lake Nighthorse

The proposed release would either be 40 cubic feet per second or 53 cubic feet per second. The release would last for five days and the City of Farmington would draw the water out of the Animas River using its pump at the Penny Lane diversion.

The Animas River is pictured, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021, in Riverside Park in Aztec. If water is released from Lake Nighthorse, it will be sent down the Animas River to Farmington.

Chavez said during low flows he anticipates it could take 103 hours for the water to reach Penny Lane and there will likely be loss along the way. The water commission is projecting that 30 cubic feet of water per second would reach Penny Lane if 40 cubic feet per second was released. One reason Farmington hopes to do the release is to get better data about the amount of water lost.

If this release occurs, it will likely happen in March and it would cost $4,500 to $6,000 to replace the water in Lake Nighthorse. Sypher and Chavez would work together to ensure none of the water released from Lake Nighthorse passes the diversion at Penny Lane, where the pump station would take the water to Lake Farmington.

The Penny Lane Dam is pictured, Monday, Oct. 22, 2018, in Farmington. The city hopes to have water released from Lake Nighthorse in March and diverted from the Animas River at Penny Lane.

"None of us want water to run past the diversion and help fill up Lake Powell," Sypher said.

Multiple organizations would need to be notified, requiring two weeks of notification. These include the Colorado and New Mexico offices of the state engineer as well as the Animas-La Plata Association.

More:State agency measures impact of pandemic on New Mexico's tourism industry

Sypher said he thinks there is a 10-20% chance that the “window will open and the stars will align” and make it possible for the release to occur. The last time Farmington requested a release, the release was cancelled because storms brought moisture to the area.

An angler walks on rocks in the Animas River, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021, in Riverside Park in Aztec. The river could see increased flows if water is released from Lake Nighthorse.

There has never been a release from Lake Nighthorse upon request of the San Juan Water Commission.

More:'It's within every single basin.' Drought conditions continue to worsen in New Mexico

Sypher said the current drought forecasts are awful for the region. If the Animas River was to go dry, the water commission would likely need water released from Lake Nighthorse. 

Without a pipeline, the only way to get water from Lake Nighthorse to Farmington is by releasing it into the Animas River, pictured Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021, in Riverside Park in Aztec.

While Sypher said he hopes that does not happen, he said that would be the ultimate test of the process for delivering the water to users like the City of Farmington.

Commission Chairman Steve Lanier, who represents San Juan County on the water commission, asked if it was possible to take the water released out of the river upstream and divert it into the Aztec reservoirs instead.

Releasing water from Lake Nighthorse would allow officials to test potential complications with delivering water through the Animas River to downstream users like the City of Farmington.

Sypher said it would also be a possibility to divert the water into upstream reservoirs like Aztec’s reservoirs.

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