Officials: Water storage will be protected after Lake Nighthorse recreation begins

Drought conditions continue to worsen in Four Corners region

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times
Lake Nighthorse, located southwest of Durango, Colo., stores water as part of the Animas-La Plata Project.
  • Lake Nighthorse stores water for the San Juan County Water Commission and other entities.
  • Recreation activities are scheduled to begin April 1 on the reservoir.
  • Drought conditions are worsening in the region, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

FARMINGTON — With drought conditions worsening in the Four Corners region, water storage is being highlighted as an important resource to guard against shortages this summer.

San Juan Water Commission members have expressed concerns about recreation on one of the region's larger reservoirs. Lake Nighthorse near Durango, Colorado, was built as part of the Animas-La Plata Project to store water for various entities in the region.

"The purpose of the reservoir is for us, not for recreation," said Cy Cooper, who represents the city of Farmington on the commission.

The city of Durango, which recently annexed the reservoir, has said the lake will be open to recreational activities, including paddleboarding and kayaking, on April 1. The lake is scheduled to open to motorized watercraft on May 15, though city officials are still working on a plan for regulating that.

Russ Howard, the general manager for the Animas-La Plata Operation, Maintenance and Replacement Association, assured members of the San Juan Water Commission on Wednesday that recreation will not be prioritized ahead of water quality. 

“The primary purpose for this project is a drinking water supply, and recreation comes secondary,” Russ Howard said. “We are not going to let recreation interfere with the main, primary purpose of this project.”

As of Monday, Lake Nighthorse was 97 percent full with nearly 112,000 acre-feet of water in it. The reservoir is expected to be 100 percent full by the end of June following 49 days of pumping water from the Animas River.

If local water users, such as the city of Farmington or the city of Aztec, need more drinking water, they can ask for water from Lake Nighthorse to be released into the Animas River. San Juan County water users could request water from Lake Nighthorse if drought conditions put a strain on water resources.

“People just need to realize that the lake is a dead pool if we destroy the viability of the water,” said Jim Dunlap, who represents rural San Juan County water users on the San Juan Water Commission.

Howard said the baseline data is in place so changes in water quality can be detected. He said monitoring will be in place for bacteria like E. Coli and for petroleum byproducts. If either of those are detected, recreation activities could be stopped or reduced.

An oil and gas separator has been installed at the boat ramp parking lot, Howard said. He said any oil or gas that leaks onto the asphalt will run into the separator.

“Regardless of how many rules and regulations you put in place, you’re still going to have the idiots that will have to be dealt with,” Howard said. “The city (of Durango) has assured us and the public that they will manage the idiot factor, but it’s going to be a full-time job.”

Members of the commission also received packets on Wednesday that included graphs and updates about water resources, including snowpack and stream flow data. The data was from organizations including the U.S. Geological Service and the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.

According to the U.S. Geological Service stream flow data, the Animas River’s flow in February was 47 and 63 percent of average, depending on the location of the gauge. The flow was below the 2002 levels, a year that turned out to be one of the driest on record. The Durango Herald reported this week that the Animas River in Colorado had reached record-low levels for this time of year.

As of Tuesday, the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center was reporting snowpack that was 53 percent of the median snowpack from 1981 until 2010 in the Animas Basin and 58 percent of median in the San Juan Basin.

Drought conditions in the Four Corners region have worsened since the beginning of the year, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The monitor also shows that drought conditions in the Four Corners region are worse now than they were at the beginning of March 2002.

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