Will 2021 be the year water is finally released from Lake Nighthorse in Durango to downstream users in New Mexico?
The answer should become clearer Wednesday.
The San Juan Water Commission in New Mexico is scheduled to discuss whether to order the first-ever release out of Lake Nighthorse, mostly for the purpose of testing the system.
San Juan Water Commission Executive Director Aaron Chavez said testing the system would help understand important operational questions, such as how much water is lost in the process and how long water takes to reach diversions.
The commission, Chavez said, is made up of the cities of Aztec, Bloomfield and Farmington; the government of San Juan County; as well as the San Juan County Rural Water Users Association.
Chavez said the city of Farmington requested the discussion be placed on Wednesday’s agenda. A spokeswoman for the city of Farmington did not immediately have information about the matter Monday afternoon.
“I don’t have any indication either way,” Chavez said of whether the commission may support a release.
The issue was first reported by the Farmington Daily Times.
Construction on Lake Nighthorse began in 2003 to provide water storage for Native American tribes as well as water-right holders in New Mexico, by diverting water out of the Animas River and pumping it uphill to the reservoir.
Lake Nighthorse was considered filled in 2009, but ever since, there’s never been a call on water from downstream users that would prompt a release.
Russ Howard, manager of the Animas-La Plata Operations and Maintenance Association, which manages Lake Nighthorse, said there have been talks of a test run for the past three years, but nothing has materialized.
Howard said there are generally two differing opinions about the test run.
On one side, some people believe if the water is not needed, why release it for just a test run? On the other hand, a test run would allow managers to see if the system is working right, so when water is needed, it will operate as intended.
“The test would be to provide some of the data needed to make decisions in the future,” Howard said.
Because of the way water is managed in Lake Nighthorse, the reservoir just southwest of Durango is continually one of the most filled human-made bodies of water in the state.
Lake Nighthorse has the capacity for an estimated 120,000 acre-feet of water. As of Sunday, there were about 107,500 acre-feet of water in the lake.
By comparison, Vallecito Reservoir, which has the capacity for 125,000 acre-feet, had about 38,400 acre-feet as of Sunday.
“The water is there,” Howard said. “It would be the first time, if we do it, that water from a member entity has been released from the reservoir back into the Animas River. It’s never been done before.”
Asked why a test run hasn’t been performed over the past decade since Lake Nighthorse was filled, Chavez said, “It’s a fairly new project. Everyone is getting their bearings on what’s needed in the future.”
The release would come at a time when the Animas River has been setting record low flows, largely a result of prolonged drought in the region.
Around the end of December, the Animas recorded its lowest flow ever at a gauge in Durango that’s been in operation for 110 years, shattering the previous low of 94 cubic feet per second set in March 1913.
At its lowest point, the river was running at 79.6 cfs on Christmas Day, as well as the day after.
As of Monday, the Animas was flowing around 94 cfs, breaking the record low flow for the day in recorded history, which was 110 cfs in 1933.