Ceremony celebrates 50 years of work to create Lake Nighthorse

Lake Nighthorse is the storage component of the Animas-La Plata Project

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times
Kayaks sit on the shore Monday at Lake Nighthorse in Durango, Colorado.
  • San Juan Water Commission has 20,800 acre-feet of Animas-La Plata water rights.
  • Lake Nighthorse was made possible through the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement.
  • Ute Mountain Ute officials ask visitors to be respectful of the history of the lake and the people buried beneath it.

DURANGO, COLORADO — Officials emphasized the importance of collaboration during a dedication ceremony for Lake Nighthorse Monday in Durango, Colorado.

“This is so many communities coming together to make something happen,” U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said during the ceremony.

The ceremony came in the days leading up to motorized boats being allowed on the reservoir. Motorized boats will be allowed on the lake starting Saturday, however those boats must maintain “wakeless” speeds on Mondays and Wednesdays.

The reservoir stores water for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District, State of Colorado, the Navajo Nation, San Juan Water Commission and the La Plata Conservancy District.

People involved in the Animas-La Plata Project attend a dedication ceremony Monday at Lake Nighthorse in Durango, Colorado.

Lake Nighthorse is the storage component of the Animas-La Plata Project, which was authorized as part of the Colorado River Basin Project Act in September 1968.

“It’s been 50 years of creating this lake for all of us to enjoy,” said Cheryl Frost, the vice chairwoman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.

The reservoir was incorporated into the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act in 1988.  

“The only way we got this project was the settlement with the Ute Indian tribes,” said Charles Blassingame, a board member of the La Plata Conservancy District.

Alden Naranjo, a tribal elder with the Southern Ute Tribe provides a prayer and blessing during a dedication ceremony Monday at Lake Nighthorse in Durango, Colorado.

Work began on the $560 million project in 2003 and water began to flow into the reservoir in 2009.

The city of Durango annexed the lake earlier this year and opened it for recreation on April 1. The recreation has been limited to paddlecraft and fishing. Recreation has only been allowed on weekends since April 1, but that will change this week.

“On March the 31st, we saw kids out here fishing,” said Durango Mayor Sweetie Marbury. “Grandma, grandpa, families. What a happy day that was! And then the lake officially opened on April the first. We know how much this means to the people of southwest Colorado.”

The city had a special event for children at the reservoir the day before it officially opened. Lake Nighthorse has been stocked with rainbow trout, brown trout and kokanee salmon.

A red ribbon stretches across the boat launch for a ribbon cutting ceremony Monday at Lake Nighthorse in Durango, Colorado.

The lake will be closed from Nov. 15 through March 31 each year. Information about recreation at Lake Nighthorse can be found at durangogov.org/LakeNighthorse.

San Juan Water Commission Executive Director Aaron Chavez attended the dedication ceremony. He said the reservoir stores municipal and industrial water. He said local forefathers worked hard to ensure the reservoir would provide a reliable water supply.

Lake Nighthorse can store roughly 123,000 acre-feet of water. The San Juan Water Commission, which consists 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. The local water users generally draw their shares of water from the rivers, but can ask for water to be released from Lake Nighthorse.

“Recreation is an added bonus,” he said.

The Navajo Nation has rights to 4,680 acre-feet of Animas-La Plata Project water, and the La Plata Conservancy District has rights to 1,560 acre-feet, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

“I would say that it’s important for a water supply and for all the communities in San Juan County,” Blassingame said.

From left, Durango Mayor Sweetie Marbury, Durango City Councilor Melissa Yousesef, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman and Alden Naranjo with the Southern Ute Tribe attend a dedication ceremony on Monday at Lake Nighthorse in Durango, Colorado.

Peter Ortego, an attorney for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, said New Mexico’s water comes from Colorado.

“It’s good that there’s a partnership between Colorado and New Mexico,” he said.

The basin where the reservoir is built has a long history of use, including as part of the Spanish Trail.

Because of the abundance of archaeological and cultural sites, recreation will be limited to the reservoir itself and within 25-feet of the waterline.

“This is a basin that’s been used for thousands and thousands of years,” Ortego said.

He said people who go to the lake should recognize and respect the long history. He said Ridges Basin was used by the Puebloans, the Utes and the Spanish.

“When you’re walking around out here, remember what preceded you,” he said.

Ortego said the reservoir covered graves of Native American people.

“You wouldn’t go to a cemetery and be disrespectful,” he said.

Harold Cuthair, the chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, emphasized that point during his dedication ceremony speech.

“Our ancestors are still buried there in the lake,” he said.

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