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Our View: More wakeless hours, more monitoring at Lake Nighthorse

At preliminary meetings before the construction of our well-loved, well-used Lake Nighthorse, the opening question at public forums was, “Will you agree to share the lake?” Everyone in attendance said, “Yes.”

Knowing what we do now, a better question would have inserted the word “proportionately.” Because at this time, hours for nonmotorized and motorized activities don’t reflect current usage. The city needs to reconsider the schedule and expand wakeless hours, as well as monitor the lake more closely.

According to figures from Durango Parks and Recreation’s recent informational update to City Council, motorized users at Lake Nighthorse make up just 6% of total users, while 33% of users engage in stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, canoeing or rowboating.

Another 32% of users are swimmers; 23% walk or run, some with their dogs. Six percent fish from the shore.

Now, hours disproportionately favor motorized users – ski, power, motor and wake boats. Wakeless hours are 7 to 10 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Nonmotorized users have even lost hours since the lake first opened, when all day Mondays and Wednesdays were available for wakeless recreation.

The city could very well have had other priorities in not previously addressing this issue. Or maybe it’s related to the turnover in Parks and Rec directors. But no matter, it’s time for a change.

Motorized users do, though, make a strong case in pointing out that figure of 6% is misleading because a ski or powerboat can haul a family or group of friends. They are all enjoying the lake. Fair enough. This figure should account for that.

In 2021, after feedback from residents, the city expanded the wakeless area of the lake from 38% to 42% of the total size. A separate paddle craft launch area was also created and wakeless hours were extended to include Fridays. This was helpful. But more than surface area, more available hours are needed for nonmotorized recreation.

What’s most fair?

A minimal ask: Wakeless hours until noon on one weekend day, along with wakeless hours until noon on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Ideally, this would be implemented by the start of the 2024 season.

Those waves generated from wakes aren’t just annoying. They’re dangerous, taking out beginner paddleboarders and scullers. And buoys can’t stop waves.

Of course, most people in motorboats are courteous. It’s the minority who gun boats right out of the launch who cause trouble. Repeat offenders.

Two other considerations were noted in the May 2011 Lake Nighthorse Recreation Master Plan final draft – “noise control” and “sensitivity to the environment.”

Too often with motorboats comes music, loud enough to be heard over an engine. As much as we like the thrill of riding in fast boats, we’re not sure why loud music can seem as required as life jackets. For nonmotorized recreationists, it’s not conducive to hearing birdsongs or water softly lapping inlets.

But, again, we all share the lake.

Another concern is serious erosion along shorelines. Frequent users have documented changes, saying it’s mostly from wake boats, which displace more water than ski boats, creating larger waves for wakeboarding and wake surfing. Downsides include long-lasting damage to shorelines, water quality and lake bottoms, with strong waves hitting land, then reverberating back into the lake. After wake boats, locals reported murkier water and fewer sightings of hatchlings.

Our Lake Nighthorse has an important and complex history as a travel route with users as far back as ancestral Puebloans. The reservoir’s bottom and rimming land are sacred sites.

Let’s rethink how to share this special place and be most respectful to each other. Start with more nonmotorized hours, more monitoring.