Receding shoreline leaves dock high and dry at Vallecito Reservoir

Monday, July 16, 2018 8:14 AM
Drought conditions are to blame for low water level at Vallecito Reservoir. The lake is 40 percent full, down about 32 feet from full capacity.

Drought's domino effect in Southwest Colorado has hit again, this time at Vallecito Reservoir.

With the reservoir less than 50 percent full, and waters continuing to drop, lake managers intend to remove the dock at Vallecito soon.

As a result, lake managers are notifying people who have boats on Vallecito Reservoir that they may want to get their boat out of the water while there is time to use the dock.

"Now's the time to do it," said Ken Beck, superintendent of Pine River Irrigation District, the agency that operates Vallecito Reservoir.

The reservoir remains open for recreation, and people with motorized boats can still launch and take out of the lake, just without the convenience of a dock. But many people may not want to risk damaging their boats, Beck said.

"I know if I had a $40,000 boat, I'd take it out and not risk the damage," he said. "We tried to keep the dock open as long as possible; we've just run out of water."

Not since 2002 do locals remember Vallecito Reservoir being so low.
Jonathan Romeo/Durango Herald

The closing of the dock at the reservoir and the impact it will likely have on tourism is another effect drought is having on Southwest Colorado, amid one of the driest years in recorded history.

The San Juan Mountains received about half the amount of snowpack they usually receive, based on about 100 years of records. As a result, the region's reservoirs didn't get much new inflow and have had to rely on carryover from last year.

Vallecito Reservoir is about 18 miles northeast of Durango and has become a popular destination for boaters, kayakers and anglers, with opportunities for camping, hunting and horseback riding.

The 125,400-acre-foot reservoir was constructed to meet the water demands of irrigators downstream of the Pine River.

The reservoir now delivers water to about 1,150 irrigators.

As of Friday, it was around 40 percent full, down about 32 feet from peak capacity.

Because of water demands downstream, the lake is dropping about 6,000 acre feet a week, which results in the shoreline receding about 6 inches each week.

As a consequence, the water is set to subside past the concrete ramp for the courtesy dock. The only other time in recent memory when this happened during the summer was in 2002, Beck said.

Boaters can access the lake off the concrete ramp, but at their own risk, Beck said. And if the concrete ramp starts seeing damage, the district may have to close the lake entirely.

The only legal place to get on Vallecito Reservoir is at the marina, which has an inspection station for invasive mussels. Beck said 12 tickets have been written to boaters trying to illegally get on the lake this year.

Boaters have been notified that the courtesy dock is being removed in the next few days. The lake is still open, but without a dock, boats may get damaged.
Jonathan Romeo/Durango Herald

On Thursday, Johnny Biffle, who lives in Fort Collins but has had a second home in Vallecito since the 1970s, was calling it quits for the season, taking his boat out of the lake.

"We didn't get out much this year with the fire and the smoke, and then the water being this low," Biffle said. "Things just didn't work out this year."

Drought conditions also set the stage for the 416 Fire north of Durango, which has had reverberating impacts to the economy in Southwest Colorado.

Vallecito was not immune.

Paul Eckenrode, president of the Vallecito Lake Chamber of Commerce, said the community feeds off the overflow of tourism in Durango. So when Durango's tourism is down, it affects the number of people who visit Vallecito.

Consequently, the area's hotels and resorts, restaurants and general stores have all taken a significant hit.

"It's been widespread," Eckenrode said.

Debby McCall, manager at Blue Spruce RV Park & Cabins, said normally in June, the resort is at 90 percent capacity. This past June, however, business dropped down to about 60 percent capacity.

McCall hasn't crunched the numbers yet, but Blue Spruce could be out an estimated $20,000. The removal of the dock at Vallecito isn't helping.

"People that stay here usually bring their own or rent boats," McCall said. "If they end up shutting boating down on the lake, that will affect us."

Vallecito Marina has been renting more kayaks and paddleboards as a result of the low water conditions, which are not conducive for motorized boats.
Jonathan Romeo/Durango Herald

Kristeen Melrose, an employee at the Vallecito Marina, said that despite all the adverse conditions, business - though down from a normal year - has remained relatively steady. In fact, the marina has been renting more kayaks, canoes and standup paddleboards, she said.

Melrose was born and raised in La Plata County. The last time she remembers the lake this low was 2002, the year of the Missionary Ridge Fire.

"But that was way later in the summer," Melrose said. "I've lived in La Plata County my whole life, and I've never seen it like this, this early in the year. It's definitely going to go down in the record books, for sure."