Water released from Lake Nighthorse will help San Juan Water Commission gather data

Release at commission's request is a first

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times
  • Lake Nighthorse stores water for municipal use for the San Juan Water Commission as well as other water users.
  • The lake stores about 123,000 acre-feet of water.
  • The water commission, consisting of San Juan County, Farmington, Aztec, Bloomfield and rural water users, has 20,800 acre-feet of water rights from the Animas-La Plata Project.

DURANGO, COLORADO — A small crowd gathered to watch as Jim Dunlap pressed a control button. Moments later, the people inside the small building could hear the sound of water from Lake Nighthorse rushing through a pipe and out of the dam.

It was a simple move, but one that had been decades in the making for Dunlap. It was the first time water from the reservoir had been released into the Animas River at the request of the San Juan Water Commission.

While the Animas-La Plata Operations, Maintenance and Replacement Association has released water from the dam as part of maintenance operations and to ensure everything is properly functioning, this was the first time it had been released based on an official request. 

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Jim Dunlap presses the button to release water from Lake Nighthorse, Monday, March 15, 2021, in Durango, Colo.

Lake Nighthorse stores water for municipal use for the San Juan Water Commission as well as other water users, including Navajo Nation and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Tribe. Filling of the reservoir began in 2009, and there was a ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2018.

The lake stores about 123,000 acre-feet of water. The water commission, consisting of San Juan County, Farmington, Aztec, Bloomfield and rural water users, has 20,800 acre-feet of water rights from the Animas-La Plata Project.

Drought management plans for the San Juan County Commission include using water stored in Lake Nighthorse, but little is known about what would happen to the water once it is released. 

The commission hopes one day there will be a pipeline to transport the water from Colorado to New Mexico, but, until then, the water must be released into the Animas River. The March 15 release will help gather data that can be used in the future to predict how much water could be lost from the time it is released from Lake Nighthorse to the time it reaches pump stations for water users downstream.

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A pipe inside the dam carries water from the reservoir to be released, Monday, March 15, 2021, at Lake Nighthorse.

March 15 was chosen for the release because the Animas River has been experiencing low water levels, and the irrigation ditches attached to it have not opened their headgates for the growing season. 

Dunlap represents the rural water users on the San Juan County Commission, a seat he has held since 1966 long before construction began on the reservoir in Durango. He said it was an unbelievable feeling seeing the water released from the lake to benefit New Mexicans for the first time after so much work.

"It's really amazing to get to be able to turn the first water out of it," he said. "I never dreamed of that. I'm tickled to death to have that test going and see what we can do with it."

Water is released, Monday, March 15, 2021, from Lake Nighthorse.

He recalled his early days on the commission as he stood by the dam on March 15. He remembered the Farmington mayor at the time, Marlo Webb, saying the city had enough water in Lake Farmington and did not need additional storage in Lake Nighthorse. He said he raised his hand and said that he would take any of the water that Farmington didn't want. 

Dunlap has been advocating for water users in San Juan County and working to make the reservoir a reality ever since. He has watched the dam be constructed and the reservoir get filled.

San Juan Water Commissioner Jim Dunlap is pictured, Monday, March 15, 2021, at Lake Nighthorse.

A lot has changed since 1966, including the City of Farmington becoming an advocate for the reservoir. In February, Farmington's community works director, David Sypher, presented a proposal to the San Juan County Commission to have water released from Lake Nighthorse as a test run. 

The water released on March 15 will be drawn out of the river and used to serve the North Star Mutual Domestic Water Consumers Association, the City of Aztec, the Flora Vista Mutual Domestic Water Association, the City of Farmington, the Upper La Plata Water Users Association and the Lower Valley Water Users Cooperative Association.

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San Juan Water Commission Director Aaron Chavez, left, and Commissioner Steve Lanier talk, Monday, March 15, 2021, at Lake Nighthorse in Durango, Colo.

"I'm very excited because this is the first time we have ever made a release," said San Juan Water Commission Director Aaron Chavez.

He said the commission was monitoring weather and streamflow, as well as the member entities' ability to take the water prior to the release. 

In 2018, the City of Farmington, working in conjunction with the San Juan Water Commission, had requested a release from Lake Nighthorse as the Animas River flow had declined to just a trickle. But a monsoon storm replenished the river before the release could happen, and they cancelled the request.

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

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