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Pine River Project History

The Pine River Project (PRP) is located in the San Juan National Forest in Southwest Colorado eighteen miles northeast of the town of Durango, and approximately 13 miles north of the town of Bayfield on C.R. 501.  It was authorized by Congress and approved by the President of the United States for construction on June 17, 1937.  The authorizing purposes for construction of the Project were twofold: flood control and irrigation.  The underlining purpose for the project was to address water shortage issues for all water users in the Pine River Drainage.   It was constructed between 1938 and 1942. 

Vallecito Dam prevents the flooding of crops, farmland, and structures along the Pine River during spring runoff and fall thunderstorms by storing the floodwater for controlled releases to benefit irrigation of Indian and Non-Indian lands, and minimize flood water damage to private lands and structures downstream. The PRP also provides municipal and industrial water to the towns of Bayfield and Ignacio, Colorado, and a rural water supply to areas in the southeast portion of La Plata County.  Vallecito Reservoir has approximately 125,500 acre-feet of reservoir capacity specifically assigned for flood control.  Project irrigation lands are located in La Plata and Archuleta Counties and consist of about 69,000 acres, of which the Southern Ute Indian Tribe (SUIT) owns about 16,000 acres. The primary sources of water for the project are the Pine River and Vallecito Creek. The main features of the PRP are Vallecito Dam and Reservoir, which are located on the Pine River about 1.5 miles downstream from where the Pine River and Vallecito Creek merge.

 On November 3, 1988, the Colorado Ute Indian Water Right Settlement Act (Act) was signed into law (P.L. 10-585).  The Act recognizes that “water from the Pine River with a priority date of 1868 and one-sixth interest in Vallecito Reservoir” is included in the final settlement.

Vallecito Dam is an earth-filled structure that is 162-feet-high and contains 3,738,000 cubic yards of material. The reservoir has a total capacity of 129,700 acre-feet. The spillway is a gate-controlled, concrete-lined open channel, 2,300 feet long at the right abutment. Between 1988 and 1989, Ptarmigan Resources and Energy, Inc. constructed a 5.5 megawatt Power Plant downstream from the Dam just east of the Spillway Plunge Pool.    Water is released from the Dam in three ways.  First, water can be released from the two 5 X 5 High Pressure Gates (Gates 3 and 4).  These gates are operated at the Gate House which is located on the road at the top of the Dam toward the east embankment. These two gates were designed to release water at approximately 1,500 cubic feet per-second at full capacity.  Gate 4 is now dedicated to providing flows to operate the three generators at the power plant with a total combined release of approximately 700 CFS, a reduction from its original design of approximately 50 CFS.

Construction of the PRP resulted in a premier recreation attraction for the general public in Southwest Colorado and points beyond.  PRID is the Recreation Managing Partner at Vallecito Reservoir on behalf of the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR).  Recreation activities include camping, swimming, picnicking, boating, fishing, hunting, cross country winter snowshoeing and skiing, ice skating, tubing, wildlife and bird watching, or just much needed periods of quite solitude from the demands of our fastpasted, high-tech, demanding world.


Early Recreation Activity at Vallecito Reservoir

Recreation at Vallecito Reservoir started taking place almost immediately after completion of the Project’s construction in 1942. The first volumes of the Project Histories noted recreation activities and the “collection of recreation fees” soon after the PRP was completed. The picture below provides an excellent example of the world-class fishery at the Reservoir, and the reputation it has carried on through the years of home for big fish, including the Colorado State record brown trout for many years.

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 It appears that Vallecito Reservoir was well ahead of its day, as indicated below, regarding later congressional recreation legislation. “Since the enactment of Public Law 89-72 in 1965, Reclamation has provided up to 50 percent of the costs for planning and developing recreation facilities with non-Federal partners in which Reclamation has entered into a long-term management agreement.  P. L. 89-72 states that, “…it is the policy of Congress and the intent of this Act that in investigating and planning any Federal navigation, flood control, reclamation, hydroelectric, or multipurpose water resource project that consideration shall be given to the opportunities, if any, which the Project affords for outdoor recreation and for fish and wildlife enhancement….” As a result, recreation and or wildlife enhancement facilities have been constructed as part of most Reclamation Projects since 1965.” (Source: Public Law 89-72 Handbook Federal Water Project Recreation Act of 1965, as Amended, page 1).

In this partnership, BOR and PRID have worked successfully side-by-side through the construction era and the daily workings and operations of the PRP for over 80 years.  BOR owns the Project Lands, and SUIT and PRID own the water rights. The three entities share in the structural development and ownership of the PRP physical features.  In strengthening this trio-relationship, and the overall success of the Project, knowing that future operations and repairs would be difficult for a small irrigation district to fund, the Congress of the United States of America added the following “unique” legislative language to the Project’s amended November 30, 1953 Repayment Contract at Article 30:

During any period when the District is operating the project works all revenues derived from land and property required for the operation and maintenance of the project works, including revenues from boating and other uses, shall become the property of the District and the Bureau of Indian Affairs for application, five-sixths and one-sixth, respectively, on the annual cost of the operation and maintenance of such works.”

Consequently, with the signing of the repayment contract, by the PRID and the Congress of the United States of America, Article 30 became law.  In addition, with the advent of Public Law 89-72, with the two aforementioned actions, the PRID and SUIT have the right and authority to collect recreation fees at the PRP.  The PRID supports recreation as a congressional add-on to the Project.  However, recreation must be a financially feasible add-on.  At a minimum, recreation revenue must exceed recreation expenses.  Alternatively stated, before recreation can help sustain the Project, it must first sustain itself.  Then, recreation revenue above recreation expenses will be applied, per congressional law, to the annual operation and maintenance of the Project.  In doing so, a notable symbiotic relationship is achieved.  With the assistance from the recreation permit fees, from those individuals who choose to recreate at the Vallecito Reservoir, these individuals take an active role in remitting the ever increasing annual costs to operate and maintain the Project.  In reality, the recreation community is taking a proactive role in helping sustain the PRP in excellent working order and condition, which ensures and sustains quality recreation opportunities for future generations.

It is estimated that the BOR has over $34,000,000 invested in the construction of the PRP based on a 2019 priced level.  In turn, the PRID has over $32,000,000 invested in the construction of the Project, and an additional $14,000,000 to $21,000,000 in annual Operation and Maintenance cost based on the same price level. (Source – “A Comprehensive Review of the Pine River Project Development and Challenges Facing Recreation at Vallecito Reservoir, December 31, 2019, PRID.”).


Existing and Planned Recreation Facilities

To understand current recreation opportunities at the PRP requires a brief look at the development and evolutionary history of recreation at Vallecito Reservoir. 


Vallecito Marina

During the 1950’s, there were as many as seven marinas on Vallecito Reservoir at one time.  Permitting this many marinas to operate simultaneously, proved to be a relearning of an old lesson.  That lesson was the unwise business practice of flooding a particular service venue and market beyond the point of sustainability for most, if not all of the private marina ventures that were on the Lake at that time.  In one way or another, each marina naturally attempted to draw a portion of the limited recreation market share to their facility.  Boat rental rates were reduced, along with other associated marina products and services to attract more customers.  Rates were reduced to the point where little if any of the marinas could produce a marginal and sustainable profit at the end of the day or month.  For many, the cutting of rates also equated to a reduction in the quality of services provided as a means of trying to stay financially “afloat.” These actions helped lead to the marina business failures.  (Note: See the Policies, Practices, and Procedures section below for the PRID’s current thinking on how to prevent a repeat of the failed marina industries at the PRP.  The same focus regarding the concerns for the sustainability of other recreation business ventures at Vallecito Reservoir is being evaluated at the PRP (e.g., the fishing guide, and tour businesses, etc.)  

In 2014 - 2015, following a brief period of operation of a private marina at Vallecito Lake, a new concept regarding marina services was introduced.  The core difference was based on the concept that the operation of the marina would be of better service to the Vallecito Community, and surrounding areas, if it were operated, managed, and maintained by a non-profit community-based organization that would operate the Marina to ensure that the money generated from it would stay in the community, and not fall into hands of private interests, investors, or entrepreneurs.  The concept gave rise to the non-profit organization “Vallecito Conservation and Sporting Association (VCSA).  In 2015, the PRID executed a concessionaire contract with the newly formed VCSA.  The contract lasted until the late winter of 2019.  During the spring of 2020, the VCSA was reorganized.  Additional modifications were made to ensure, similar to Article 30 of the aforementioned repayment contract with PRID and the U.S. Congress that all monies generated from the Marina would stay in the Vallecito Community byway of sustaining, improving and expanding the recreation program at the PRP. 

At present there is one marina at the PRP.  A concessionaire contract (Contract) was entered into on May 8, 2020, between the PRID and VCSA, and approved by the BOR.  VCSA is a 501(c)(4) not for profit entity. The Contract’s: purpose, general conditions, grants and terms, PRID’s and VCSA obligations, operational requirements, etc., are spelled-out in the Contract.  

As shown in the Contract, the PRID is the owner of all motorized water craft rented at the Marina (i.e., pontoons and fishing boats).  The rental revenue is divided equally between VCSA and the PRID.  All other Marina related sales revenue is divided 20 percent to the PRID, and 80 percent to the VCSA (e.g., rental of boat slips and buoys, fishing related items, soft drinks and snacks, etc.).  As stated earlier, all revenue generated by the PRID, by congressional mandate, must be used for the annual operation and maintenance of the PRP.  A vibrant and desirable Recreation Program cannot be achieved without a well maintained and efficiently operated Project at its backbone, or core.  Simultaneously, the lion’s share of the money generated by the Marina will also stay in the community to further benefit the PRP Recreation Program for future generations. 

Approximately one year later, the contract was amended, signed and approved by the aforementioned entities.  The following changes were provided in the amended Contract:

1)      The name of the marina was changed from “Vallecito Marina” to “Vallecito Marina and Yacht Club (VMYC).”

2)      VCSA was granted the privilege, to operate and maintain additional facilities and amenities within the Project boundary at the north end of the Reservoir.

3)      At this location, VCSA would rent non-motorized watercraft, such as canoes, pedal boats, small sailboats, sailboards, kayaks, bicycle-type watercraft, and other similar vessels.  All such rentals will be in accordance with the terms in the Contract.

4)      In addition, VCSA may also construct a playground, a beach area, volleyball courts, and picnic facilities.  Prior to construction, VCSA shall obtain the approval of the PRID and Reclamation for the proposed improvements.

As of this writing, (December 2022) the construction and site approval of the amended improvements has not been completed but continue to be planned for the future.  

Other recreation activities conducted by the VCSA include: 1) Winter Ice Fishing Tournament, 2) Regatta and Poker Run (boat and small yacht racing events), 3) Kid’s Fishing Tournament ( each youth receives a free rod and reel), 4) Kid’s Archery Course and Instruction, 5) Mushroom Identification and Foray, and 6) Ice Skating Rink, etc.. 

In addition, other public groups have, with PRID oversite and approval, hosted additional events such the Spring Heavy Half-Marithon Race, and Winter and Summer Fest Activitie.  All interested public groups and individuals are required to comply with securing special even/use agreements with the PRID District, and abide by associated guidelines and requirements, including remitting application and  user fees and other outlined restrictions that protect the resource and public on the federal estate. 


Vallecito Nordic Club

For many years the Vallecito Nordic Club and the United States Forest Service (Forest Service) joined forces to provide winter cross-country skiing on the east side of Vallecito Reservoir.  In the winter of 2016 - 2017 the BOR initiated discussions and negotiations with the Forest Service to resolve the recreation fee collection issue that had drawn criticism from recreation users that were purchasing a recreation permit, while the skiers were not purchasing the permits.  The negotiations ended with a February 24, 2021 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the U.S. Forest Service and the BOR which recognized the PRID’s right and authority to collect recreation fees at the PRP including recreation permits for winter skiing.  

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Guide/Chartered Fishing

As shown in the above photograph, Vallecito Reservoir produces trophy game fishing.  At present, there are approximately four (4) guide or charter fishing businesses operating at Vallecito Reservoir.  As stated above,  Each has acquired, from the PRID,  a special/commercial use agreement, and complied with other requirements mention above,  for their guided fishing business activities. For more information regarding chartered fishing and other services, see "Recreation" section on this website.