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Lake Nighthorse management at a standstill
Reposted with permission of Dale Rodenbaugh Herald Staff Writer The Durango Hearld
The issue of providing recreation at Lake Nighthorse is gaining no ground, and the economic downturn is making progress even more problematic.

Neither Colorado State Parks nor the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation can oversee recreation at the reservoir being created by the Animas-La Plata Project southwest of Durango.

At a public meeting held March 5 to discuss recreation at Lake Nighthorse, Bruce Whitehead, executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District, suggested that a public or public/private partnership could step forward to manage recreation. On Friday, he said the district stands ready to help move the process along.

"It's important to get the community involved," he said. "This is going to impact us all."

Kurt Mill, who oversees 18 state parks on the Western Slope, reiterated Friday his Colorado State Parks Department can't take on oversight of activities at Lake Nighthorse even if another agency built the facilities, which he estimated would run from $20 million to $25 million.

"Up until 2008 we were interested, but we ended up with a new director and a new board and the economy went south," Mill said Friday by telephone from Clifton. "Right now, we can't afford to operate Lake Nighthorse even if someone else built it. Our general fund is scheduled to be cut back $2.5 million - 35 percent."

Kathleen Ozga said the Bureau of Reclamation's regional office in Grand Junction, where she is chief of land and recreation management, likewise isn't in a position to take responsibility for the recreation area. The bureau built the reservoir as the Animas-La Plata Project.

"Reclamation doesn't have appropriated funding or personnel to develop or manage recreation at the reservoir," Ozga said Friday by telephone. "Only on rare occasions do we have oversight of recreation, and nowhere in Colorado as far as I know."

Lake Nighthorse will have a surface of 1,500 acres when the Ridges Basin Reservoir is filled to capacity in 18 months to three years. The body of water, a controversial settlement of Native American water-right claims, will provide water for three Native American tribes in Colorado and New Mexico and nontribal users. When the project was downsized in 2000, an irrigation-water component and funding for recreation were removed (although recreation itself remained).

The 2000 environmental study of Lake Nighthorse described a recreation area that could accommodate 1,980 visitors at a time, with annual use topping 218,000 user days. There would be 196 campsites and 38 picnic areas, 10 miles of hiking trails, fishing and a four-lane boat ramp.

Now only the boat ramp, funded from a different source, is a sure amenity. Through the efforts of state Sen. Jim Isgar, the state provided $750,000 of severance taxes that was used to leverage $2.25 million in Wallop-Breaux funds. Wallop-Breaux money comes from a federal fuel tax on motorboats and small engines.

Ozga said the boat ramp must be in place within three years after the Animas-La Plata Project is completed. The Bureau of Reclamation plans to start filling the reservoir from the Animas River this spring.

"We'll open the boat ramp, but only the boat ramp, to the public after the reservoir is filled," Ozga said. "But the rest of the area will remain closed until a manager and appropriate recreation facilities are in place. We have to protect the land from damage due to uncontrolled public use."

Mill said his agency could step into the breach if conditions change.

"If someone else built the facilities and would pick up any financial loss we have - most state parks don't make more than cost - we possibly could manage Lake Nighthorse," Mill said. "But not at this point in time."

Numerous issues remain to be resolved, among them the stocking of cold-water fish and the level of boating on the lake. Boating is assured, given the source of the Wallop-Breaux money. But residents of subdivisions in the hills west of the reservoir say noise from powerful engines would be intolerable.