Lake Nighthorse

City of Durango should not rush to take on a responsibility that it need not assume

Just because the federal government built a reservoir a couple of miles from downtown does not mean the city of Durango has a responsibility to manage it for recreation. Nor has it been shown that doing so is necessarily a good idea. Nonetheless, that is where things appear to be headed.

A better idea might be to talk further to the other potential players in managing the lake and see what kind of cooperation they might offer. After all, while Lake Nighthorse is near the city, it also is in La Plata County and Colorado, and is owned by the federal government. Why should it fall to the city to run it?

The logic of this is strained. The Bureau of Recreation, the federal agency that owns the reservoir, is into water storage, not recreation. The state begged off on making it a state park pleading lack of money.

The county apparently is not interested, either – although that might be a question for the incoming commissioners. And if the starting premise is that somebody has to offer recreation at the lake, that leaves the city.

Of course, that premise is shaky. If nobody does anything, no one would die, no child would go hungry. And there always is next year.

Beyond the fact that it seems a waste to have a lake and not be able to use it, there is no particular reason this should be a top city priority. Yet the city, which just a month ago was predicting doom if the voters did not approve the franchise fee, already has budgeted $200,000 for managing it.

The city Planning Commission voted Monday night to go forward with changing the city’s comprehensive plan to allow for annexing the 5,500 acres of federal land that includes the lake.

Annexation is deemed necessary because city police cannot patrol outside city limits except to aid other agencies in emergencies. And, if the city is managing recreation at the lake, it wants its police to keep order there.

Again, each step drives the next, and they all stem from the fundamental idea that something has to happen soon – when it does not. Instead, why not go back to all the parties involved and try to work out a cooperative arrangement.

The city figures that by charging admission it can cover 90 percent of the cost of operating the lake for recreation. The remaining 10 percent would be picked up by the city and the Bureau of Reclamation. But if the city could set things up so that fees cover 90 percent, why would the state be unable to do the same?

That way, the lake becomes a state park, the city and the Bureau of Reclamation kick in the same 10 percent as before, and with no need for city annexation, the sheriff handles security. (The Sheriff’s Office is almost next door, anyway.)

That is only one idea; there are doubtless others. Are there examples out there of how other lakes or similar facilities have been managed? Are there other cases of city parks and recreation departments running a reservoir?

The Planning Commission vote was 3-0, but one commissioner also voiced a legitimate concern. As he put it, the city needs “to be conscious that we can’t keep adding playgrounds.”

He has a point. There are any number of recreational amenities folks might enjoy, but not all are realistic functions of city government.

By rushing into this, the city is putting the focus on itself and the pressure off other possible partners. It should back away and involve them.