The Bureau of Reclamation gave vague reassurances Wednesday that progress is being made to open Lake Nighthorse for recreation but few details.
Kathleen Ozga, resource manager with the bureau’s Western Colorado area, gave an update at a public meeting at the Durango Community Recreation Center. About 100 residents attended the meeting, and some asked questions that Ozga either couldn’t answer or declined to answer. However, some residents said they felt Ozga provided the information she could, and it was new to them.
Opening Lake Nighthorse is not an option this year, and no timetable was presented. Ozga said a May 31 letter to the editor in The Durango Herald by Ed Warner, Western Colorado area manager for the bureau, that said the agency was committed to working with stakeholders and hoped to reach a consensus by early 2015 was a “little presumptuous.”
“We would love to put a date up there, we would, but we can’t because we don’t know,” she said. “There’s too much uncertainty, for lack of a better word and too much level of detail we still need to work out.”
However, she also said there are just a few areas in a draft recreation lease agreement, annexation agreement and planning agreement that the bureau and the stakeholders need to tie down.
“I believe, and maybe I’m naive, I believe we are making progress,” she said.
Lake Nighthorse is a reservoir with 1,500 surface acres created in Ridges Basin southwest of downtown Durango by the bureau to provide water for Native American tribes, cities and water districts in Colorado and New Mexico. The reservoir was filled in June 2011, but the parties involved, after years of talks, have yet to agree on major issues.
The stakeholders include the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Navajo Nation, the Animas-La Plata Conservancy District, the state of Colorado, the San Juan Water Commission and La Plata Conservancy District.
The entities formed the Animas-La Plata Operation, Maintenance and Replacement Association in 2009. The lake and surrounding land will remain off-limits until there is a recreation manager and basic capital improvements are done, Ozga said.
The city has offered to manage recreation at the lake but wants to annex the area to provide police protection. The Utes previously have said annexation is unacceptable.
There has been conflict about who should manage recreation at the lake and be involved in making decisions. The Utes also have said they must be able to exercise Brunot Treaty rights to hunt on ancestral land.
Minimum improvements to the site include an entrance station, boat inspection and decontamination building, more parking, road realignment, a boat dock and picnic areas.
Some new information and detail was provided, although not as much as some residents wanted. Resident Richard Speegle asked specifically what was holding up the annexation agreement with the city.
Ozga said one of the agency’s concerns was if the city annexed the recreational area and then the partnership doesn’t work out. The bureau wants language in the agreement saying the land would be deannexed.
“That’s just the nitty-gritty stuff that we’re working through,” Ozga said.
The bureau’s presentation also showed a proposed map of initial recreation at the site.
Resident Jim Cross said he came to the meeting for answers and felt frustrated.
“You can sense the frustration in the room,” he said after the meeting. “I really don’t feel any better informed than when I came.”
Allison Morrissey, the Democratic candidate for La Plata County treasurer, said the meeting was well worth her time.
“What I heard tonight is they’re looking at it realistically, they’re looking at it more through a financial sustainability place – those things were not discussed before,” Morrissey said. “So now they’re looking at it from a more appropriate financial position and looking at how they can open it up as quickly as possible, and those were new things that I learned tonight.”
An earlier version of this story had an inaccurate statement about the Animas-La Plata Operation, Maintenance and Replacement Association. The Association did not contribute money up front for expenses in anticipation of water purchases by the city of Durango and the Animas-La Plata Water Conservatory.