County discusses Navajo Lake, animal shelters

Brett Berntsen

FARMINGTON – Representatives of New Mexico State Parks attempted to appease San Juan County officials on Tuesday as the agency presented a contentious plan to shrink its jurisdiction at Navajo Lake State Park.

“We’re here to promote a partnership and be transparent,” State Parks Director Christy Tafoya said.

Anglers fish on March 29 at the Texas Hole on the San Juan River.

The department has proposed a plan under which park rangers would only patrol the heavily used areas near Navajo Dam, transferring the burden of law enforcement in outlying areas to the San Juan County Sheriff's Office. County officials expressed concern about the costs associated with the changes and are angry that the state took so long to notify the local agencies involved about the potential change.

“Partners don’t work on something for three years and wait to tell us until this January,” Sheriff Ken Christesen said.

Christesen said the sheriff's office would need at least two boats and five additional personnel to take up the slack under the plan.

Tafoya said the state developed the boundary changes in the fall of 2015, but has spent multiple years negotiating lease agreements with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the land the park sits on.

“This is a new conversation,” she said. “And it’s far from over.”

Tafoya said all but 11 law enforcement incidents at the lake in the past five years occurred inside the proposed boundary changes. Rangers will continue to patrol the entire lake surface, and will respond during emergencies, as well, she said.

Navajo Lake is the second most-visited state park in New Mexico, and the most popular attraction in San Juan County, according to the Farmington Tourism and Convention Bureau. The boating, fishing and camping destination drew 556,000 visitors in 2015, an increase of about 100,000 from the year before.

“We all love the lake and the benefits its provides,” Commissioner Jack Fortner said. “I hope in the end people continue to think of it as a safe place to be.”

In other action, commissioners on Tuesday heard a presentation from the Aztec animal shelter. The county currently sends stray animals to shelters in both Farmington and Aztec, but is considering contracting solely with Aztec to save money.

County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said utilizing the Farmington animal shelter and its new multi-million-dollar facility would cost the county $513,000 next fiscal year. The Aztec shelter has offered to fulfill the county’s animal control needs for $399,000.

Members of the public, however, voiced disappointment that the county would consider turning its back on the Farmington shelter, which it helped fund.

“Please don’t give up on the shelter now," Karen Bayless of Farmington said. "Not after you’ve invested so much time and so much money."

Navajo Dam resident Leslie Jedrey said the move could discourage county residents like herself from attempting to rescue stray animals.

“They’re going to turn us away,” she said. “We’re going to see a lot more animals being abandoned.”

But despite the concerns, the cost savings look appealing to the cash-strapped county. Carpenter said if the county maintains contracts with both shelters, it could spend $1.5 million on animal services next year.

“That’s a whole lot more than we spend on bus lines or senior centers or veterans,” he said.

Brett Berntsen covers government for the daily times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606.