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City seeking funding for $5 million study to increase height of Lake Farmington dam

Project would increase lake's water storage capacity by 73%

FARMINGTON — Farmington officials have moved a long-simmering plan to increase the height of the dam at Farmington Lake to the front burner.

During a Jan. 17 City Council work session, the city’s community works director, David Sypher, delivered a detailed presentation on the plan, which culminated with him asking councilors to allow his staff to apply for funding that would cover a $5 million feasibility study of the project. That request was approved unanimously.

Sypher said Farmington officials have discussed increasing the height of the dam for the past seven years, and he advised members of the council to take a long view of the subject. But, he said, the time to move ahead with the idea is now.

“This is a generational project,” he said. “This is not going to be done anytime soon.”

The sense of urgency, Sypher said, is a product of the cycle of drought that has gripped much of the Southwest for the last 20 years and the impact that is having on water reserves at reservoirs throughout the region.

“We need to move on this now to bring it to fruition, and we feel that it’s very important to do so,” he said.

The project would increase the lake’s water storage capacity by 73%, he said – enough to meet the city’s water demands for 348 days instead of the current 201 days.

But it would come at a steep cost. Sypher if the project were built tomorrow, it would cost an estimated $70 million. Even if Farmington makes rapid progress on the dam alteration plan, securing funding and approval for it in a matter of years, he estimated it would cost $100 million by the time it is built.

“The cost is tremendous, and the regulatory humps are even worse,” he said.

All the same, the cost of doing nothing could be even higher, he said. Sypher spent much of his presentation discussing the grim water storage situation at lakes and reservoirs throughout the region, including Navajo Lake, which was only 22% full in July 2022, he said. At that same time, Lake Mead was only 27% full, and Lake Powell was at 26% of capacity in February 2022.

Sypher said water conservation is a practice that all Southwestern communities need to be seriously engaged in these days, but he said Farmington may be missing out on its biggest water conservation opportunity of all. He said the city could be taking far more water from the Animas River than it does, but that resource is allowed to keep flowing downstream.

“We don’t have a place to capture it,” he said. “There’s water, and we have water rights, and it just makes so much sense as a water conservation measure alone that we make use of that.”

Sypher and Mayor Nate Duckett both noted that the city also is the regional supplier to the Flora Vista, Upper La Plata and Morningstar/Animas Valley water systems, among others, and it needs to secure its water future in order to keep meeting those obligations, they said.

“So this is a critical project,” Sypher said. “In my estimation, the best bang for the buck, the best thing to be working on, the most secure thing to be working on is the fact of raising our dam if we can. And that is what we need to study.”

Sypher said the city’s plan is to ask for $5 million from the New Mexico Finance Authority, half of which would be in the form of a forgivable loan, and $2.5 million from the San Juan Water Commission. The net amount would be enough to cover the cost of the $5 million study at no cost to the city, he said, which would follow on the heels of an initial study of the subject that was conducted in 2017.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or

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