The 123,541 acre-feet of water in Lake Nighthorse tantalizing swimmers, boaters and anglers did not come to rest in Ridges Basin because of its recreational value. That happy side effect serves as somewhat of a palliative for those opposed to the Animas-La Plata Project that pumped the water into the lake for municipal and industrial uses. Making it accessible should be a priority not contingent on a gold-plated management plan.
Nevertheless, Lake Nighthorse is a reverse desert island in the dry environs of its surroundings, tempting recreationists with its promise while various management agencies wrangle over what will be allowed on the lake and who will be charged with overseeing that activity. That is the wrong approach.
The city of Durango, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy and Colorado Parks and Wildlife should stop playing bureaucratic hot potato and instead approach the lake with a presumption of access. After all, it is a public resource much like the Animas River, and, despite some minor challenges, access and use of that water feature seems to work fairly well without an ironclad prescription for how the activity takes place.
That is not to say that a full-blown management plan is inappropriate; it just need not preclude use of the lake while it is being developed. A few ground rules and some minor enforcement should suffice. How about three basics: No fires. No overnight camping. No invasive mussels. This last could be enforced with a temporary inspection station consisting of a card table and a sunshade at the top of the boat ramp that already is built. The first two would be enforced through the common sense that most people possess, the watchful eyes of other lake users or, at most, an occasional visit from law-enforcement personnel.
Having a fully developed recreational plan is a worthwhile undertaking for the city. It will map out the vision for the facility and provide a consistency that will help users understand what is allowed and what is not. If camping, mountain bike trails, interpretive signs and fire pits eventually are added, all the better. In the meantime, though, surely we can be trusted to go for a swim, attempt to catch a fish, or take a boat out without running afoul of some long-term management goal. We seem to be able to handle this challenge just fine in the many rivers and lakes that dot the region – and the bountiful public lands on which they are situated.
With a handful of basic guidelines, most lake users will do just fine to enjoy the waters while the city crafts its long-term vision. Waiting for a $300,000 management plan and a few amenities to unfold is so much fodder for cynics about bureaucracy and government heavy-handedness. Plus, it is summertime, it is hot and there is an enormous lake off-limits on the edge of town. It seems rather silly.