Recreation and Usage at Lake Nighthorse

There’s no question that Durango residents want public access for recreation on Lake Nighthorse. It is, however, a complicated and contentious issue with many stakeholders involved. After decades of negotiation, progress remains slow. However, ongoing dialogue and developments give residents reason to hope.

The City of Durango has been working with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) since 2011 on an annexation and recreation management lease that would allow the City of Durango to manage recreational usage at the reservoir and surrounding area. The necessary negotiations, as well as the eventual management of the lake’s facilities and resources (in the event the proposed plans are approved), require collaboration between the diverse and numerous stakeholders. These include the City of Durango, the Bureau of Reclamation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, La Plata Conservancy District, Navajo Nation, Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District, San Juan Water Commission, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board. All are members of the Animas-La Plata Operation, Maintenance and Replacement Association (ALPOMRA) and are direct project beneficiaries, based on historic water rights settlements at the federal level.

Should the proposed annexation and recreation management lease be approved, Lake Nighthorse will be in good hands. The City of Durango has a strong track record of managing recreation access and facilities for residents and visitors in our community. In 2012, the City of Durango Parks and Recreation Department earned the ‘National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in the Field of Park and Recreation Management.’

Here is brief introduction to the history, status, and future plans for the City of Durango’s involvement with recreation and usage at Lake Nighthorse.

Brief History

The Animas-La Plata Project (ALP) was approved in 1968 as part of the Colorado River Basin Project Act, under jurisdiction of the Bureau of Reclamation. The project fulfilled water rights of the Ute Mountain Ute and South Ute Indian tribes of southwestern Colorado (Colorado Ute tribes) and provided for irrigation, municipal, and industrial water supplies to the Colorado Ute tribes as well as other project beneficiaries.

ALP mandated that water from the Animas River for these needs be diverted to Lake Nighthorse. As with many damming and water diversion projects, ALP proved contentious, and its approval was disputed for decades. After inclusion into the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act in 1988, the project received the official go-ahead in 2000. Construction began in April 2002.  In March 2013, the project was deemed finished and operational, and placed under the management of the Bureau of Reclamation.

By law, the primary use and purpose of the ALP Project is to provide municipal and industrial water supply. Recreation is considered a secondary purpose of the ALP Project, and all recreational usage is secondary to protecting the quality of the water and the cultural resources of the Indian Trust Assets.

Recreation at Lake Nighthorse

Four alternative plans addressing the development of recreational facilities at Lake Nighthorse have come under consideration: 1) a ‘No Action Plan’ (in which no recreational development would take place); 2) an ‘Action Alternative 2 – 2000 FSEIS Recreation Plan’; 3) an ‘Action Alternative 1 – 2011 Recreation Plan’; and 4) a ‘Proposed Action – 2014 Recreation Plan.’

In March 2016, the Western Colorado Area Office (WCAO) of the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) released a draft environmental assessment (EA) analyzing, in detail, these four alternatives (see link below).  All four (the three actions plans, plus the no action plan) include provisions for the Bureau of Reclamation to protect water quality and to maintain the cold water (trout) fishery already established in Lake Nighthorse, including monitoring fish for mercury poisoning and issuing fish consumption advisories if necessary. At present, the WCAO is moving forward with the construction of a boat inspection facility and aquatic invasive species decontamination station, to be initiated in the summer of 2016.

The most recent plan (2014) builds on the two previous action plans, further exploring the feasibility of the City assuming responsibility for managing recreation at Lake Nighthorse. The 2014 plan incorporates feedback from a two year public input process in response to the 2011 plan, which identified the public’s desire for opportunities including swimming, boating, fishing, hunting, camping, multi-purpose trails, and special events. Nearly 300 subsequent, additional public comments were received in response to the 2014 plan, prior to this most recent plan’s public comment deadline of May 25, 2016. These also are being taken into consideration.

The 2014 plan recommends that in the initial phases of recreation development, Lake Nighthorse will be open for day use only, with minimum facilities necessary for public health and safety, law enforcement, and protection of the environment. It recommends making use of Lake Nighthorse’s existing boat ramp, parking areas and access road, with improvements to road (application of chip seal surface) and boat ramp access, along with implementation of a courtesy dock system, construction of an overflow parking area, and connecting trail. It includes the public’s desired amenities that came out of the two year public input process, but on a significantly parred down scale.

At this point, recreation at Lake Nighthorse is still on hold. Annexation of Lake Nighthorse into the City of Durango is a requirement in order for the city to assume management of recreation and provide law enforcement and other municipal services. Discussions among stakeholders continue and the Bureau of Reclamation has indicated that a record of decision is anticipated to be issued by the end of this calendar year on the preferred action for the Recreation Plan for Lake Nighthorse.

City of Durango Recommendations and Comments for the Recreation Management of Lake Nighthorse

In May 2016, as part of the public comment process, the Durango Parks and Recreation Advisory Board submitted a series of statements in response to WCAO’s Draft Environmental Assessment. Points are summarized below.

  • The community exhibits a high level of support for public recreational access to Lake Nighthorse.
  • The adoption of the City of Durango Parks, Open Space, Trails and Recreation Master Plan (POST) in April 2010 put in place a comprehensive vision for City of Durango recreation, management, access and facilities. Management of Lake Nighthorse fits well with the POST vision.
  • The POST vision aligns with the missions of the Department of the Interior, including “celebrating and enhancing America’s great outdoors, strengthening tribal nations and insular communities, and engaging the next generation.”
  • Durango Parks and Rec Advisory Board acknowledges and supports the guiding values in the WCAO’s Draft Environmental Assessment of March 2016, sharing the conviction that time spent in nature provides physical, emotional, and intellectual benefits to communities and individuals –  that a community’s collective understanding, empathy, cohesiveness and vision are deepened by exposure to the cultural resources, from both past and present, of our area  – that recreation in, and appreciation of, our beautiful Southwest landscape strengthens our community’s commitment to protect the resources we value.
  • Durango Parks and Rec Advisory Board estimates that more than 50 percent of recreational users at Lake Nighthorse will be local residents, living within 50 miles of the lake.
  • A Durango Parks and Recreation management plan will place a high value on cultural awareness and stewardship.
  • Once approval and funding are in place, Durango  Parks and Rec Advisory Board is committed to establishing and managing a beach and swim area, camping and picnic areas, trails, non-motorized boat launch, breakwater(s) as required, and educational/informational displays showcasing the Native American connection to Lake Nighthorse and the surrounding region.
  • Durango Parks and Rec Advisory Board will continue to gather information in consideration of possible motorized boats at Lake Nighthorse, winter season recreation, and a hard surface trail connecting to the existing Animas River Trail.


Links and Resources:

Draft Environmental Assessment, prepared by the Western Colorado Area Office of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Department of the Interior (March 2016)

Bureau of Reclamation Information Page (updated as news allows) on Animas-La Plata Project and Lake Nighthorse:

City of Durango Comments of Draft Environmental Assessment for Lake Nighthorse Recreation Plan, prepared by Melissa Youssef, vice chair of the City of Durango Parks and Recreation Advisory Board (May 2016)

Letter to the Editor, Durango Herald, written and submitted by Melissa Youssef on behalf of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board (May 2016)

City of Durango webpage for Lake Nighthorse

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