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Aspen, CO, Colorado

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October 13, 2012
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Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

Hydroelectric power? Is that an idea whose time has passed? I don't know much about electricity, but I do know a lot about water, and it seems you can't have one without the other. At least you can't and still call it "hydroelectric." The theory is, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, "to build a dam on a large river."

If you've ever been heli-skiing in Canada, the Columbia River, with its eerie size, myriad fish and riparian moose, makes the idea of hydropower jump out at you, and the idea seems entirely plausible. Then again, as you bike, jog or drive from one Aspen place to another, take a look at two of our anemic streams, Castle and Maroon creeks, and you wonder why anyone would want to mess with them further.

The genius of man is thinking that he can outsmart Mother Nature in one regard or another and make her work for him. We still haven't learned that for every action we take, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Truthfully, I don't know how that's related to genius, but you probably know what I'm talking about. Unfortunately, there are many times we don't see the reaction until much later, after the damage has been done.

I mean, the "brilliance" of Aspen's proposed hydroelectric project is that "only" 2.5 miles of Castle Creek will be dewatered with any regularity. Or, to look at it another way, according to Mitzi Rapkin, of the city, "We will take 51 to 57 percent of Castle Creek's water four months of the year - not much of the year." Yep, not much more than one-third of the year. That seems like a huge amount to me.

"Dewatering" is a term that begs to be looked at from the downstream side of things, as in "down the creek without a paddle." Ask Jon Waterman or Pete McBride how dewatering has affected the Colorado River. To be technical, "dewatering" basically means the "screwing over" of an existing stream.

Unlike many of the vociferous voices on either side of this issue, I occasionally lived in Aspen when the hydroelectric plant was the only source of our electricity. In those days, we didn't have heated driveways, mega-mansions, thousands of computers or cell-phone chargers, but we liked having the lights on at night. And it was a struggle. Spending nights at my grandmother's house was many times a memorable adventure for a kid, as the "rolling brown-outs" would alert us to a potential problem at the plant. Grandma's household was prepared, and the excitement grew as we pulled flashlights from drawers and lit often-needed candles that were always at the ready on the sideboards, kitchen and dining-room tables. When the absolute power failure occurred, as it occasionally did, my great-aunt Julia would begin lighting the kerosene lanterns.

One of the most damaging aspects of the environmental movement has been the oft-repeated, ill-advised statement by ecofriendly gurus that, "The ends justify the means." That type of thinking seems to apply to our hydroelectric vision. I mean, is it really OK to endanger or destroy part of our river ecosystems because we could get some water-generated electricity by doing so?

Once again, according to Rapkin, the hydroelectric plant will produce only 8 percent of the power necessary to get us 100 percent off the grid (The Aspen Times, July 30). At least 2.5 miles of Castle Creek will be dewatered, not to mention the 100 percent change in annual streamflows, plus we'll get to spend upwards of $10.5 million for the honor of environmental desecration. Is the trade-off worth it?

Even little kids soon figure out that putting square pegs in round holes doesn't work very well. The tired cliche "borrowing from Peter to pay Paul" comes to mind.

Twist it, turn it any way you want, but we just don't have enough river for such grandiose dreams.


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The Aspen Times Updated Oct 13, 2012 10:29AM Published Oct 13, 2012 01:04AM Copyright 2012 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.