Polishing a diamond in the rough: Montezuma County is confident it can revitalize recreation at McPhee

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Montezuma County is confident it can revitalize recreation at McPhee

REVITALIZING MCPHEE RESERVOIR

An overview of McPhee shows receding water levels and an absence
of boaters. Photo by Wendy Mimiaga

From an overlook behind the Anasazi Heritage Center, McPhee Reservoir glistens like a rough-cut jewel in a solitary setting.

The beauty of the view is what first strikes the observer. Next, and perhaps even more striking, is the observation that the lake is largely empty of boats or other craft – no matter the time of year.

Many people have likened the manmade lake, which has 4,470 surface acres and some 50 miles of shoreline, to an unpolished gem, a recreational and economic opportunity that is mostly undeveloped.

For years, local leaders have dreamed of finding a way to draw more visitors to boost the economy, but those dreams have not been realized. Three marina operators have tried and failed in past decades, and in 2002 the marina burned in an apparent arson fire. It hasn’t been rebuilt.

Now, frustrated by the situation, the Montezuma County Commissioners are seeking to take over recreation management at the lake from the Forest Service, which owns the land surrounding the reservoir. The county has been meeting with representatives of the Forest Service, Region 9 Economic Development District, Sen. Michael Bennet’s and Rep. Scott Tipton’s offices, and other entities to discuss the possibility of a county takeover.

Entrepreneur Stan Folsom, who recently operated the marina at Vallecito Reservoir east of Durango, is eager to install one at McPhee.

“It is a tragic void in our area to not have McPhee in use,” Folsom wrote in a letter in the Dolores Star.

On Jan. 27, the Forest Service published a bidding opportunity with a Feb. 27 deadline for a marina operator to manage a commercial marina at the reservoir and “provide at their own cost docks (boat slips), fueling facilities, boat rentals and general merchandise services.”

The second largest body of water in the state of Colorado, McPhee Reservoir stretches west and north from the town of Dolores, nestled amid piñon-juniper forests and scenic red-rock cliffs. It seems like an ideal venue for watersport enthusiasts.

“The reservoir is the centerpiece of an astounding array of all-season recreation opportunities in the Dolores area,” said a 2004 feasibility study done by the Abonmarche Group, a Michigan consulting firm specializing in marinas. “It is connected to the Dolores River, a wild river of consummate beauty; the nearest marina is about two hours away on the Navajo Reservoir. . . ; somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million tourists visit the area attractions each year; hundreds of thousands of motorists pass through Cortez on Highway 160 each year. . .”

Early planners envisioned a bright future for McPhee. A 1982 recreation plan completed by the Bureau of Reclamation (which operates the reservoir itself) and Forest Service predicted 2,600 people a day (78,000 a month) would use McPhee in the summer, an estimate that proved wildly over-optimistic. There are only an estimated 7,000 launches per year from the McPhee boat ramp and another 1,000 at House Creek.

In 1988, a group that had been invited to bid on providing a marina at McPhee declined to do so.

“The figures for visitations (projected use) of the reservoir are too high. We have no idea where these projections came from. . .,” the Earthscape Group wrote the Forest Service. Earthscape cited a litany of problems with the reservoir, including a profit-making season of just 10 weeks, lack of contract protection from low lake levels or poisoned fish, a steep and narrow boat ramp, and the main boat ramp’s distance from Dolores (9 miles).

Earthscape was particularly critical of the campsites, which are more than a mile uphill from the water. “An idea of hell might be to be placed in a tin box trailer, on a south-facing slope, in a PJ forest, on a hot day in late June while the gnats eat you alive,” the letter said.

“We believe that any concessioner who attempts to develop a marina. . . would lose everything,” Earthscape concluded.

Over the next decade, that prediction proved prophetic.

In the mid-2000s, after the last operator had pulled out, the marina had burned, and the breakwater had been dismantled, a grassroots group called the McPhee Recreation Plan Committee began meeting to discuss how to revitalize the reservoir. Its creation was prompted by a visit from members of the Colorado Governor’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade in October 2002. A tour took them to the lake overlook behind the Heritage Center, and the visitors reportedly were puzzled about why no one was on the lake. With $29,000 in funding from the state and Forest Service, the committee met for about two years and commissioned the 2004 Abonmarche Report.

That document was very positive about the potential for McPhee if full boating access were provided, but emphasized that “small reservoir marinas cannot be financed and operated for reasonable profit by the private sector.”

It estimated that the reservoir and surrounding land needed approximately $10 million in recreation infrastructure” to bring them up to date.

The McPhee Recreation Plan Committee ultimately recommended that Colorado State Parks take over managing recreation at the lake, but after much study, that agency eventually decided it would not be financially feasible.

Speeding things up

But Montezuma County Commissioner Larry Don Suckla recently told the Free Press that he believes conditions have changed and a private entrepreneur could be successful.

“I do,” he said. “For instance, I talked to a man in Dove Creek who has a sailboat and he said if you had 60 slips like Stan [Folsom] is talking about, I really believe those slips could be filled.

“Somebody like that who has a sailboat that is very hard to transport could leave it there on the lake and if they wanted to go out there and stay the night on their boat it would already be there.

“I believe there are a lot of boats in this county.”

Suckla pointed to Groundhog Lake, a small reservoir north of Dolores owned by Montezuma Valley Irrigation and operated by a private contractor, as an example of what could be done at McPhee.

“There are people up at that lake from all over – their license plates are from all over in the summertime.

“It’s been a success story in my opinion. . . . they just do a lot of positive things up there.

“So I don’t see why the same thing can’t happen at McPhee.”

The county has grown impatient with the slow pace at which the Forest Service – an agency sometimes accused of being afflicted with “analysis paralysis” – can make plans and implement them.

“For me, the reason for doing this is so that we could speed up recreational opportunities at the lake,” Suckla said. “It’s not to take over everything the Forest Service is doing – it’s just to maybe ease the burden on them because they’re having a tough time with their budget.

“The county isn’t wanting to do this to make money – and this is just one commissioner talking – and it would be just fine if it would break even in the end and yet it would increase recreational opportunities at the lake and benefit the county with the trickle-down effect (of money being spent at local businesses).

Suckla said development of watersport recreation could ultimately be a component of making the county a destination for a variety of outdoor recreationists.

Plans to expand Phil’s World, an increasingly popular mountain-biking area near Cortez and a trail system that will run from Cortez to Mancos, along with the half-million annual visitors to Mesa Verde National Park, have the potential to dramatically increase the tourist traffic and commercial benefits in the county.

Taking title

There are two ways the county could take over recreation at the lake. The Forest Service and county could enter into a memorandum of understanding for the county to become the manager, or the county could seek to be given title outright to certain portions of McPhee, something that would require an act of Congress.

“They have talked about both (MOU or title),” said Derek Padilla, district ranger for the Dolores Ranger District. “If it’s just a management agreement, any activities they would want to implement would be subject to federal processes and policies so it doesn’t get them what they want – to be able to make decisions and implement them in a faster time frame. So the only feasible option to meet their needs may be to give them title.”

Failures in the past

But others who have tried to find ways to encourage recreational development at McPhee have found a number of obstacles in their path – including aging infrastructure, less-than-ideal locations of boat ramps, and competition from bigger reservoirs in the region such as Lake Powell in Arizona and Navajo Lake on the New Mexico border.

The failures of past marina operators have been blamed on a host of factors, including Forest Service regulations that some people say made it difficult to make a profit.

“I’ve heard a variety of reasons why they weren’t successful,” said Padilla, who was not present at that time. “Some say it was due to Forest Service regulation and policy because we delayed authorizing the operator to open, that was why the first two failed. Or the other side I heard was that those two ventures built too big and based on the amount of visitation they actually received they weren’t able to recoup the investment they put into it.

“I don’t know what is the correct story. I don’t know what the actual cause is.”

The Abonmarche report stated, “The original marina operations on McPhee Lake failed because they overestimated available boating markets at the time and made some key errors in marina planning and design.”

McPhee has two concrete boat ramps, one at a site west of the town of Dolores off Highway 184 and Road 25 and one at House Creek, a dozen miles northwest of the town. One of the ongoing points of debate is where the marina should be located. It has always been at the main location off 184, but Folsom believes it would be better-placed at House Creek, which has a protected cove.

Wherever it is to be, the site will need a new breakwater, a structure that provides protection from the choppy waters of the lake where boats can put in.

But, as with everything else to do with McPhee, the process of installing the new structure has seemed to take place in slow motion.

‘Under-designed’

In 2005 the Forest Service and county began collaborating to get a breakwater built. The county pursued grants from the state and hired a company to develop a design.

The Forest Service felt the first breakwater was “under-designed,” according to Padilla. “We needed a breakwater that was structurally sound.”

Redesigning it took quite a few years, with a lot of “back and forth” among the agency, the county, and the company. “It wasn’t a very timely effort, unfortunately,” Padilla said.

“Then, when they actually started installing it, we came to the realization the elevations of the lake bed the company had based their designs on weren’t actually the elevations of the lake.”

Padilla said he isn’t sure how the error occurred. “You put weights on the bottom of the lake and the cabling that attaches to the breakwater itself, and that holds it in place. Depending how deep the lake is and how the slope is determines how the cable should be,” he said.

“They based it on a pretty steep slope. Your nearest weight to the shore was a shorter cable and as it went out it got longer. When they originally designed the breakwater we were having normal to above-average water elevations. The lake was full. But when we actually started to put the breakwater in now the levels were to the lowest ever. They observed it was actually flat. No slope. Some of the breakwater would be on top of the ground and some in the water. So they had to go back and come up with new calculations. That took a while.”

Now, at last, the breakwater is ready to be installed. However, the county and Folsom believe it should be moved to House Creek.

Padilla isn’t so sure. “They see it as a more sensible location and I don’t disagree, but that will require we do an analysis, which can take six to 24 months.

“We don’t know [whether the breakwater would work there]. We would have to have a review of the current design and see, based on the lake elevation over there. I don’t want to get into a situation where we just pull the thing over there and it doesn’t work and something ends up happening that could be drastic. When you’re dealing with people and bodies of water, that’s not the time to experiment.”

Marianne Mate, who was mayor of Dolores from 2002 to 2006 and has been involved in much of the marina and breakwater planning, is likewise uncertain. “I think the House Creek idea is not a great idea because it’s a really long way around to get there,” she said. “A lot more day use happens at the main site. On the weekends those parking lots are full from bottom to top.”

Mate has worked long and hard over the years to try to improve McPhee, but it’s been an uphill battle.

At one point she even traveled to Washington, D.C., with one of the thencounty commissioners to try to get $1 million or more to improve the infrastructure, but nothing came of it.

She worked with the county as a consultant for about a year and a half to get funding to build the new breakwater. She said at that time the county, which paid for the design and the large tires that went into the breakwater, signed an MOU with the Forest Service providing that when the breakwater was put in, the agency would take over its management.

Raw sewage

But the current county commissioners are critical of the way the agency has managed McPhee and aren’t eager to see it remain under its management. One action that angered the county was the removal of flush toilets and a fish-cleaning station from the main site. Padilla explained that the Forest Service, which has had its budget cut by 35 percent in recent years, did not have the money to repair the infrastructure required to keep those facilities operating.

“We had a pump station below there that, when the toilet flushes or the fish station was used, it went into pipes and pumped them uphill to the top to our water treatment facility, but we were having issues. It was 30 years old, failing on a regular basis. The potential for a catastrophic failure that would have released raw sewage into the lake was pretty high. We were out of options for repairing the pumps because they weren’t made any more and not even the pipes were available.

“We decided to put in those vault toilets that we have all over the forest. We left running water so people can wash off and things like that.

“The county sees that as a reduction in amenities, but we wouldn’t have been able to afford putting in a new system to get that sewage back up to the top.”

Suckla said the county wants to take over only three small sites at the lake: the main site at Road 25, House Creek, and Sage Hen, a – wide-open area off Road X that has been closed by the Forest Service because of ongoing vandalism.

He pointed out Congress acted in the past to deed Joe Rowell Park to Dolores.

McPhee recreation comes with a long list of needs. The infrastructure (excluding roads) at the McPhee and House Creek sites is valued at $5.6 million. The Forest Service estimates that $2.9 million of work will need to be done on the roads within five years.

The water-distribution systems are “aging with persistent leaks,” according to the Forest Service, and buildings, pavement, and campsite spurs are “in marginal condition at all sites.”

The campground at McPhee was designed in the 1980s when recreational vehicles were much smaller. “Over time where we can, we have been updating some of the sites to accommodate these larger RVs, but we have a lot more to do,” Padilla said. Combining three or four sites into two can accommodate larger RVs, he said, but “it would be a very expensive project.”

Suckla said he knows the county might have to invest money to bring the areas up to snuff. “I’m sure there would be some financial obligation, but I’m not sure what that would be.”

Suckla said he believes private efforts to operate a marina at McPhee failed because of ever-increasing federal regulations. “In the end their original business plans didn’t include all those extras, so they couldn’t make it.

“So I think it doesn’t have to be that fancy at first – just get the marina out there floating and get the environmental assessment done to make sure the marina won’t hurt the fish, and just start off small and grow as the need may be.”

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