Local gov’ts still seeking plan on Lake Nighthorse recreation

Lake Nighthorse was originally constructed to satisfy the water claims of the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes, but has drawn strong interest from the surrounding community as a potential site for recreation.
Jeremy Wade Shockley | The Southern Ute Drum

Don’t air up the kids’ arm floaties just yet, but officials involved in the Animas-La Plata Project could be making progress toward a workable plan for recreation on Lake Nighthorse.

Representatives of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe met Monday, Sept. 9 with local, state and federal agencies to hash out plans for recreation on the 123,000-acre-foot reservoir, which was created to settle Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes’ historical water claims.

The lake reached capacity in June 2011 – and, naturally, began attracting interest from hopeful swimmers, fishers and boaters immediately. But to this day, due to concerns over the fiscal commitment needed to manage it and the existence of Ute cultural resources in the area, it remains closed to public use.

Both the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Colorado State Parks have declined to develop and manage recreational facilities at the lake, the former arguing the job is outside its scope of purpose and the latter citing a budget shortfall.

So last year, the City of Durango leapt into the fray with a proposal to take the lead. But to do so, it said, it would have to annex the property to provide law enforcement using city officers.

That raised a red flag within the tribe, which intends to preserve its Brunot Treaty rights and protect water supply as the project’s primary purpose. So it was back to the drawing board at the Sept. 9 meeting at the Animas-La Plata Project offices in Durango – or so it seemed.

“We continue to be convinced that the only way that the city can effectively manage Lake Nighthorse is to annex the property,” said City Attorney David Smith in his opening remarks. To do so without annexation would present various problems including liability and compensation in a police event, he said.

But Sheryl Rogers, attorney for La Plata County, suggested an alternate arrangement.

“The La Plata County sheriff has law enforcement jurisdiction throughout the county. It’s clear that the sheriff has jurisdiction for the lake,” she said. “The only other suggestion that I can make is that if the provision was removed that requires the city to provide law enforcement, the county could do it.”

Rogers said candidly that the county isn’t looking for extra work, but it acknowledges a statutory responsibility to police the area.

The big question: If the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office could police the lake, would the city then be willing to manage it?

“We’d have to look at it,” Smith said. “I think it could work, but it’s in the details.”

Scott McElroy, outside counsel for the tribe, agreed it’s an idea worth investigating. But, he added, that doesn’t totally satisfy the tribe’s concerns about protection of cultural resources should the area open.

“There are, I believe, significant issues above the water line that have not been addressed,” he said. “Those cultural resources and environmental issues cannot be ignored as we go forward in that process.”

Cathy Metz, director of the city’s Parks & Recreation Department, said the city “would want to avoid them if there’s an alternative.”

But given the sensitivity of the area, the city is reluctant to jump in without knowing what plans Animas-La Plata stakeholders would allow in the coming years, Smith said.

“We have a real interest in knowing what the association and the bureau feel future recreation might look like three, four, five years down the line,” he said. “We don’t have to make a profit. [But] we try to recapture our costs where we can to the point where it’s sustainable.”

Case in point: Because of the distribution of cultural resources, the placement of any possible campsite is problematic. Placing the campsite away from the lake would reduce revenue and create safety problems for people crossing the road, Smith said.

“The attractiveness of managing recreation becomes diminished,” he said.

There are also other issues to surmount, Metz said, such as the different sets of laws that city and county officers enforce.

Ed Warner, Western Colorado Area Office manager for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said his agency would take a first stab at drafting a process for planning the future of recreation at the lake and circulate it to the group.

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