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Water security in a dry land

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald file photo

Durango holds the rights to 1.6 percent of Lake Nighthorse’s water, which City Manager Ron LeBlanc says offers “a secure source of water forever.”

By Jim Haug Herald staff writer

How do you plan for 20,000 additional residents expected during the next 20 years?

In the arid Southwest, Durango is getting water-storage rights to Lake Nighthorse with plans to formalize an agreement next month that will cost the city $6 million.

As part of the Animas-La Plata Project, Lake Nighthorse provides water storage for tribal and water right-claim holders along the Animas River.

Durango would be entitled to an annual water allocation of 3,800 acre feet of water, or 680 million gallons.

In terms of the behemoth Lake Nighthorse, Durango’s storage rights might seem to be a drop in the bucket, or 1.6 percent of the reservoir, but it would be a significant toehold for Durango.

City Manager Ron LeBlanc has called it a “secure source of water forever,” allowing for the buildout of new neighborhoods and industrial areas, such as Twin Buttes, Three Springs, Ewing Mesa, La Posta Road and “even the redevelopment of downtown and North Main Avenue.”

Without Lake Nighthorse, Councilor Christina Rinderle said, the city’s water storage is seven days, meaning the city would run out of water in a week if its water sources were suddenly cut off or depleted.

Because of its location in the Animas River’s upper basin, the city historically has had water rights to supplement its other main water source, the Florida River, but “the problem is, if you don’t have a place to store it, it flows right past Durango,” LeBlanc said.

“We can now store the water we own. We get to hold it there until when we need it,” he said.

On Aug. 6, the city will have a public hearing to discuss approval of a $4 million loan, which will be part of the $6 million payment to the Animas-La Plata Project.

The loan will be from the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority with an interest rate of 1.95 percent for a financial impact of $4,801,557, plus any other additional costs that may be determined by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, according to city estimates.

The voters pre-approved Durango for the debt in a 2011 Taxpayer Bill of Rights election. The ballot measure passed with 61 percent of the vote.

The debt will be paid “exclusively” from the revenue of the city’s water utility with its fund reserves also paying for the $2 million balance of the $6 million cost of the water-storage rights.

The city also is making plans to increase capacity to its system, such as adding a second water-treatment plant somewhere downstream from the dam of Lake Nighthorse and new pumps to tap into the A-LP system.

Because the A-LP pumps are much lower than the city’s current water pumps on the Animas River, they can continue to pump water even when the river level is low, noted Steve Salka, the city’s utility director.

Besides expanding capacity, a second water-treatment plant would allow for repairs to the city’s current plant, which was built in the 1950s. It would provide much-needed redundancy.

“So, theoretically, we could shut one off to repair it, and the other one can supply the whole city,” LeBlanc said.

These capital projects will be discussed in more detail as part of the city’s five-year plan sometime later this summer. The financing for the projects would require a new bond, LeBlanc said.

When the city finalizes the $6 million payment to A-LP, Durango would get a representative on the board of directors, joining a diverse group of interests in the reservoir, including the states of New Mexico and Colorado, the tribes of the Southern Utes, the Ute Mountain Utes and the Navajos as well as agricultural interests.


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