Paonia Reservoir remains a state park, at least for this year

Stand near the dam of Paonia Reservoir and the view includes a steep-walled canyon with a small pool of stained water washing up against the rocky dam.

Halfway up the reservoir, a comma-like mud flat cleaves the surface of the shallow reservoir.

At the up-river end of the scimitar-shaped reservoir, instead of waves lapping against the shore you hear the runoff-charged torrent of Muddy Creek, running rust-red and bank to bank with a winter’s worth of snow headed downstream to irrigators in the North Fork Valley.

The Bureau of Reclamation, warily eyeing the abundant snowpack perched in the serrated mountains upstream of the North Fork Valley, has dropped water levels in the 49-year-old impoundment to about 5 percent of capacity to prepare for what may be a record spring runoff.

With water levels so low as to be unreachable, the small state park near the foot of McClure Pass isn’t very appealing to anglers, although the reservoir formerly was a very good fishery for northern pike.

If the runoff comes as forecast, Paonia Reservoir eventually will rise, the waterskiers, campers and anglers will return, and no one may remember that Paonia State Park narrowly missed becoming Paonia State Wildlife Area.

This year, there still is a state park at Paonia Reservoir and at least for this year, it’s going to remain a state park.

“The folks in the Governor’s office and at the (Department of Natural Resources) had been looking at re-purposing several state parks and trying to figure out a way to keep them open,” said Kurt Mill, Rocky Mountain Region manager for Colorado State Parks. “Since that time, however, we have figured out a way to keep them open.”

Mill, who oversees the 18 state parks on the Western Slope, said three of those parks — Paonia, Harvey Gap and Sweitzer Lake — initially had been discussed for “re-purposing” along with Bonny Reservoir near the Kansas border.

The proposed merger of the Colorado Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation with the Division of Wildlife possibly would have meant switching the targeted parks to wildlife areas, the change being more than simply switching the signs at the gates.

Should the wildlife agency take over managing the property, away would go the tables, fire rings, boat docks and campgrounds.

The DOW doesn’t do boat inspections for zebra mussels, so no motorboats or facilities to allow launching.

“It would be a barebones operation,” said one parks employee, whom I approached briefly Thursday while driving through Spruce Campground, the smaller of the park’s campgrounds. “I’m glad it’s staying open,  this place is really important to the locals who use it.”

It’s not like no one notices Paonia or Harvey Gap state parks.

Harvey Gap last year attracted 34,713 visitors and Paonia lured 23,763, according to Todd Hartman of the DNR.

And Mill said the two parks each contribute from $1.1 million to $1.3 million each year to the local economies.

“And that’s new money, from people who come from 50 miles away or more,” Mill noted. “It’s not the same local dollar going around and around.”

These days, any infusion of new cash is welcome, and while communities such as Paonia, Hotchkiss, Rifle and Silt won’t disappear without their respective parks, the loss of the parks goes well beyond the greenback.

In summer, these parks are oases, offering water-based recreation in a parched land.

“Some days, when the reservoir is full, the water here is emerald green and there are waterskiers and boaters and fishermen all over,” said the parks worker at Paonia.

Sweitzer Lake, just outside of Delta, will operate this year under the state parks’ banner but that 210-acre lake, loaded with selenium and under a fish-consumption warning, faces a bleak future.

Bonny Reservoir, where wipers and white bass formerly grew to near-record proportions, also will open this year but the park’s future is dismal, at best.

All the water is headed this fall to Kansas to meet interstate contractual demands. Which, by the way, you can hit with a rock from the dam’s east side.

“It has its own set of challenges,” Mill said. “That’s too bad, because I was stationed there for a while and it can have great fishing.”

Once the water goes, and unless Kansas somehow changes its mind about how much water it’s owed by Colorado, the only thing left is some pheasant and wild turkey hunting.

Which makes it perfect for a state wildlife area.

For the rest of the state’s 41 parks, Mill remains an optimist.

He listed reducing staffs, relying more on volunteers and user fees and cutting back services among the money-saving ideas to keep parks open.

“We don’t want to price out the people who visit our parks,” said Mill, well aware of that fine line of user-pay operation. “We want to be available to the young kid with his fishing pole or his family who drops him off and stays to picnic.

“But some changes have to be made.”

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