Lake Nighthorse assessment available soon for comment — The Cortez Journal

Lake Nighthorse via The Durango Herald
Lake Nighthorse via The Durango Herald

From The Cortez Journal (Jessica Pace):

An environmental assessment and other documentation on Lake Nighthorse may soon be available for public review and comment, bringing residents a step closer to recreational use, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials say.

Kathleen Ozga, resource division manager for the Bureau of Reclamation Western Colorado Area Office, said the comment period will last 30 days. The agency will then continue massaging the environmental assessment with a tentative completion date in late April.

“We’re reviewing the documents internally and hoping by the end of the month, a draft of the EA will be available,” Ozga said. “Once that’s done, there would be construction at the entrance area, signage, an overflow parking lot and possibly improvements to the access road. Ideally, we’re looking at (opening recreation) sometime in 2017.”

Lake Nighthorse was filled with 1,500 surface acres in June 2011 with the purpose of providing water for local tribes and water districts. But fishing, boating, swimming and other recreational uses have been prohibited, to the public’s dismay, as stakeholders weigh the impacts of such uses and figure out which entity – which could be the city of Durango – should be charged with managing recreation.

Most concerns from the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes, which have a significant claim to water rights at the lake, are connected with the impact to cultural resources and water quality. Proposed compromises entail limiting lake access to day-use only and prohibiting camping.

#Snowpack news: “This [San Juan SWE] is way better than where we were last year” — Brian Domonkos

From the Telluride Daily Planet (Stephen Elliott):

The first Colorado water supply outlook report of the year brought good news for the state and particularly the San Miguel Watershed. The report, released Jan. 1 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, found that the statewide snowpack is at 118 percent of normal, the most plentiful start to a winter water season since 2011.

After several dry years, heavy precipitation early this winter and fall replenished reservoirs around the state, allowing water managers to take a cautiously optimistic look at what the summer might bring.

“To be at this point at the beginning of the year is usually a good thing,” said Brian Domonkos, snow survey supervisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Colorado program. “What we can really hope for is a prolonged spring where temperatures stay pretty cool. Hopefully it stays cool well into the summer and that runoff will run off nice and even and it’ll be a nice water supply headed into the summer.”

But weather is never a sure bet, and Domonkos said it was still early to predict a healthy water season.

“We’ve only reached about the halfway point when it comes to our snowpack accumulation season. There’s a lot that can change,” he said. “It’s not the easiest for the weather in the mountains to maintain (those high levels of precipitation), but it’s certainly possible, and it could be higher.”

All major river basins in the state have above-normal snowpacks, according to the report, but the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan basins are collectively the highest above normal, at 130 percent. In the combined southwestern Colorado basin, which includes Telluride, December storms dropped a whopping 174 percent of the average precipitation for the month.

The Telluride Ski Resort has already reported 161 inches of snow for the season.

Reservoir storage in the combined basin is at 103 percent of average, compared to 88 percent at this time last year.

The Colorado Snow Survey’s snowpack and streamflow forecasts put the San Miguel at 161 percent of normal snowpack, the highest in the combined basin. The other river basins range from the La Plata River, at 108 percent of normal snowpack, to the Dolores River, at 157 percent of normal snowpack.

Domonkos added that the San Miguel has about twice as much water in its snowpack as at this point last year; a positive improvement, but also nowhere near record levels.

“This is way better than where we were last year, but we are a good long ways from where the maximum is,” he said.
That snow is so important because it holds the water that will keep the West green in the summer.

Lake Nighthorse water-rights settlement pushed to Jan. 15 — The Durango Herald

Lake Nighthorse via the USBR
Lake Nighthorse via the USBR

From The Durango Herald (Jessica Pace):

A ruling on the settlement agreement reached last month in the years-long Animas-La Plata Project legal battle over water rights to Lake Nighthorse was continued to Jan. 15.

Chief District Judge Gregory Lyman’s ruling was postponed until next month because a signed agreement to the settlement is still needed from several federal parties involved, including the Department of Justice.

Last month, stakeholders reached the settlement, which saved all parties from an arduous trial over whether the Southwestern Water Conservation District’s continued use of the water from Lake Nighthorse for irrigation is consistent with state and federal law.

The SWCD had conditional rights to the water through a temporary permit.

The litigation sprang from groups, including the Animas Conservancy District, San Juan Water Commission, Southern Ute Indian Tribe and Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribe, that were opposed to the SWCD’s continued use of water from Lake Nighthorse, which was designated to fulfill the water needs of native communities and water districts in Colorado and New Mexico.

Water rights stakeholders able to reach settlement in Animas-La Plata Project — The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

A collective sigh of relief was let out in 6th Judicial District Court on Monday after a settlement was reached by several local agencies with a stake in the water rights of the Animas-La Plata Project stored in Lake Nighthorse.

Chief District Judge Gregory Lyman will review the details of the settlement in the coming weeks, and the court will reconvene 1:30 p.m. Dec. 10 to hear his ruling.

The case stems from a decades-long debate over water rights to the Animas River. In June 2011, Lake Nighthorse was filled with 1,500 surface acres by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to provide water for Native American tribes, cities and water districts in Colorado and New Mexico.

However, the Southwestern Water Conservation District has used the water for irrigation, through a temporary permit. Recently, the water district applied to continue its conditional water rights, but it was met with a flurry of opposition from various agencies, including the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Animas Conservancy District, San Juan Water Commission, among others.

“It is an extremely complicated case, with complex claims and complex objections,” Lyman told The Durango Herald after the hearing.

Lyman praised the various stakeholders for coming to an agreement among themselves, rather than taking the case through a lengthy, heated trial.

“This should have been a three-week trial,” Lyman said. “They all worked hard. Like I told them, ‘I’m sure they addressed their issues better than I could of.’”

Bruce Whitehead, executive director for SWCD, emphasized those complexities.

“There were lots of parts in play,” Whitehead said. “There was a difference of opinion on how much water was needed for the (A-LP). The incentive for us (to settle) was to get some closure on the A-LP project itself.”[…]

Scott McElroy, an attorney for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, said the Tribal Council passed a resolution Monday approving the settlement.

“Sometimes the A-LP engenders strong feelings,” he said, provoking some light laughter in the courtroom. “It was a little bit of a family feud for a while. It’s nice to put everything together and come up with a settlement.”

US Senators Bennet and Gardner, along with US Representative Tipton pen letter requesting the opening of Lake Nighthorse

Lake Nighthorse via The Durango Herald
Lake Nighthorse via The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Michael Cipriano):

U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, penned a letter to Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Estevan López requesting open access to the Lake Nighthorse Reservoir at the earliest possible date.

The La Plata County reservoir was completed in 2011, but a recreation plan has not yet been agreed on, and the area has remained closed to the public.

Lake Nighthorse is currently being managed by a coalition of partners that helped build the original reservoir.

The Animas La Plata Water Conservancy District commissioned a report that found recreation at Lake Nighthorse could stimulate upwards of $12 million in annual economic benefits for La Plata County.

“Given this momentum, we encourage the Bureau to expedite and prioritize its environmental analysis of the proposal, which would clear the way to open the lake to public access,” the letter reads.”

The letter also says that as of March 6, all members and partners of the Animas-La Plata Project’s Operation, Maintenance and Replacement Association have endorsed the assessment of a draft recreational plan for the lake.

Several other entities have also expressed support for recreation at the reservoir, including the Southern Ute Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority, and the city of Durango.

“Given this impressive show of support throughout the region, we urge the Bureau to redouble their efforts to analyze and adopt an agreeable plan that will open Lake Nighthorse to recreational access as soon as possible,” the letter reads. “We look forward to your response including a timeline for next steps and to the resolution of this issue.”

Durango Mayor Sweetie Marbury said she is looking forward to the city’s residents being able to enjoy the area for swimming, fishing boating and other recreational uses.

“I am pleased to see that all the partners are now on board to initiate a process that we hope will open Lake Nighthorse as soon as possible,” Marbury said. “I appreciate our congressional delegation showing leadership on behalf of Southwest Colorado to support our efforts to open Lake Nighthorse to the public.”

More Animas-La Plata project coverage here and here.

Long Hollow reservoir filling — The Durango Herald

Long Hollow location map via The Durango Herald
Long Hollow location map via The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Dale Rodebaugh):

Rain and snowmelt have provided the first water for a reservoir on Long Hollow Creek near Redmesa, a long-planned storage unit that will help Colorado meet its contractual water obligation to New Mexico and indirectly provide water for irrigators in southwest La Plata County.

Construction was completed in June 2014 on the Bobby K. Taylor Reservoir, named for the late rancher whose land is now disappearing under the advancing water. When full, the reservoir will be a lake one-mile long.

Flow from Long Hollow Creek and Government Draw fills the reservoir, which has a capacity of 5,300 acre-feet.

“We had 385 acre-feet this morning,” Brice Lee, chairman of the La Plata Water Conservancy District, said Tuesday. “It’s not as much as we’d like, but we’ll take it.”

Colorado shares La Plata River water 50-50 with New Mexico, but the erratic flow makes fulfilling the obligation problematical. Now, Taylor Reservoir water can be released to the La Plata River a mile away for New Mexico consumption, and this will allow Colorado irrigators to take water from the La Plata River.

Construction of the reservoir was on a tight budget. When the Animas-La Plata Project, the last major water work in the West, was downsized in the 1990s, water for irrigation was eliminated.

Long Hollow project advocates patched together a financing plan. They acquired $15 million the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority had set aside for projects in the area, got $3 million from the Ute Mountain Ute tribe and, finally, $1.6 million from the state Legislature last year.

More La Plata River watershed coverage here.

Lake Nighthorse: “This water would really help our future” — Manuel Heart

Lake Nighthorse via the USBR
Lake Nighthorse via the USBR

From The Durango Herald (Mary Shinn):

The Durango City Council signed a resolution Tuesday supporting the delivery of water from Lake Nighthorse to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

“This water would really help our future,” Chairman Manuel Heart said.

The resolution stemmed from a series of recent meetings between city officials and the tribe about the potential recreational use of Lake Nighthorse, City Manager Ron LeBlanc said.

The city likely will send the resolution to Colorado’s U.S. senators and House members to help support the tribe as it seeks funding for infrastructure to deliver water.

Lake Nighthorse was built to provide Native American tribes, including the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Navajo Nation and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, with water they are entitled to receive, said Justyn Hoch, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation.

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe has water rights to about 31 percent of the water stored in the lake, but Congress has not funded infrastructure to bring it to the reservation, she said.

Congress has funded a pipeline to the Navajo Nation, which is nearing completion. It will deliver water to the Shiprock area. In addition, the Southern Utes could access water from Lake Nighthorse by releasing it back into the Animas and taking it out of a river diversion, she said.

However, the infrastructure for the Ute Mountain Utes was dropped from federal legislation in 2000, Heart said.

The tribal leadership already has met with U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R.-Cortez, and has plans to meet with U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R.-Colorado, this year to talk about the need to fund a delivery system.

The additional water would allow for greater economic development on the reservation, Heart said. The reservation covers about 600,000 acres southwest of Cortez and has one of the largest farms in Montezuma County.

Ute Mountain Ute Councilor Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk also voiced her appreciation of the resolution because the reservation currently has limited water resources. While securing water delivery is a priority for the tribe, she expects it to be years before the tribe receives an appropriation.

More Animas-La Plata Project coverage here.