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Our View: Time to tap Lake Nighthorse

As long as water flows clear, clean and freely from our faucets, we have a false sense of security. We’re removed from any urgency on securing water and building resiliency. Yet, signs that threaten our supply and access are all around us. Aging infrastructure, drought and aridification, unplanned mine releases and wildfires.

When we talk about water, it’s often in conversations about growth. More subdivisions, more people. But not this time. More water is needed now to meet current demands.

Last week, Durango Public Works Director Allison Baker presented a sobering overview to City Council about the risks and stresses to our water supply. Baker has a plan to tap into Lake Nighthorse to access the city’s 3,800 acre-feet of water, equating to 350 days of storage or more than a 1,500% increase in storage resiliency. Currently, at the College Mesa Water Treatment Plant, Terminal Reservoir’s maximum capacity is 267 acre-feet, meaning 10 days of water storage during peak demand in summer and 30 days in winter.

We can’t afford not to tap into Lake Nighthorse. We’re throwing our weight of support behind this project.

The first entity to tap – Durango, in this case – would build a manifold with additional chambers. This means the water gates would open, so to speak, with easier, less expensive connections later on for the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes. This doesn’t solve the logistical nightmare of getting water to reservations. But the potential to attach and meter would be there.

Council passed a resolution to give $500,000 to Public Works to study preliminary engineering and feasibility for a pipeline from the lake to the treatment plant. Over five years, Baker would design the pipeline, purchase rights of way and construct it for an estimated cost of $22 million.

We want the city to green-light this project all the way through. It can’t get sidelined with other concerns and passing priorities of the day. We won’t have anything without water.

Baker looked at trends, statistically significant data and science. She credits Durango’s forefathers with securing water rights around 1910. “We want to leave future generations in as good a position as our forefathers who bought water rights,” Baker said. “We have great water rights.”

But it’s not enough in our modern world. In January, the Florida Mesa pipeline leaked. It took 22 days to locate and repair the 70-year-old cast-iron pipeline. Combine this with snow melting a month early and a dry spring with flow levels dropping significantly until almost July. “We think the river’s always going to be there,” Baker said. “It doesn’t matter how great your water rights are if no one has flow.”

Remember, the Dolores River ran dry last summer.

Our watersheds are always at risk of wildfires. “Just because something burned once, doesn’t mean it can’t burn again,” Baker told Council. As horrific as the Gold King Mine release was, wildfires can be worse with debris washing into rivers, killing fish and compromising water treatment.

The time is right for project funding through the Department of Local Affairs, grants and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, of which the tribes will receive a portion of $3.5 billion for water improvements.

In September 2008, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe partnered with La Plata West Water Authority on the Animas-La Plata Water Project to fund an intake structure, according to Archie House Jr., tribal council vice chairman. “But the tribe is no closer to having water brought to the reservation,” House said.

Baker’s project increases possibilities for access. This means something.

We have to stay the course on this project. Lake Nighthorse contains more than water. It holds everything.