Aspen officials expected to make announcement about water rights issues this week | AspenTimes.com
Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Journalism

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Aspen officials expected to make announcement about water rights issues this week

A look at the location of the potential Maroon Creek dam and reservoir below the confluence of East and West Maroon creeks on July 12, 2017. The City of Aspen has said it will announce a change in its current approach to maintaining conditional water storage rights tied to the potential reservoir.

Aspen city officials plan to reveal this week a proposal to resolve the issues raised by its conditional water storage rights tied to potential dams and reservoirs on upper Castle and Maroon creeks.

Last week the city approved money to study underground storage, looked into how much water storage it needs, and responded in water court to a previous filing. In the past month, city officials also have met with a number of opponents in the water case.

"Things are changing rather quickly regarding the current diligence cases," Aspen City Manager Steve Barwick said Friday, referring to the two ongoing due diligence cases now unfolding in Division 5 water court. "I expect a completely different discussion will be taking place within one week."

Barwick also said he and other city staff members "have a great deal of work to do toward that outcome" and he expects to hold a news conference by Friday about the city's proposal.

As presently decreed, the Maroon Creek Reservoir would store 4,567 acre-feet of water behind a 155-foot-tall dam a mile and a half below Maroon Lake. The Castle Creek Reservoir would hold 9,062 acre-feet behind a 170-tall-reservoir on the main stem of Castle Creek 2 miles below Ashcroft. 

The city originally filed for the water rights in 1965 and has periodically told the state it intends to build the dams and reservoirs, if necessary, as part of its municipal water system. The city filed its most recent applications for due diligence Oct. 31 and is seeking to hold on to its conditional rights for another six years.

City officials do not appear to have tipped their hand to the opposing parties in the cases about the substance of this week's announcements.

"I really don't know what the city will present at its big announcement," said Rob Harris, senior staff attorney at Western Resource Advocates, who recently met with city officials on potential alternatives to the reservoirs, along with representatives from Wilderness Workshop of Carbondale. "I'm assuming that this will be more in the nature of the city announcing its preferred solution, or some part thereof, rather than any sort of finalized deal with any of the parties.

"Whatever they present, the follow-up questions we're going to be asking include whether their idea moves Castle and Maroon creeks upstream of Aspen closer to permanent protection and, if their idea involves moving any or all of the water rights, what the potential impacts and benefits of that change will be."

The environmental organizations opposing the city in water court also include Colorado Trout Unlimited and American Rivers.

"What would not make us happy is if they said, 'We will significantly downsize these reservoirs but keep them in the same place,'" said Matt Rice, director of American River's Colorado River basin program, during an interview in late June. 

Rice also said that Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron met with Bob Irvin, the president and CEO of American Rivers, on June 21 at city hall for 45 minutes. 

The city has scheduled a second settlement conference for Aug. 2 with the 10 opposing parties in the water rights cases.

Last week, the City Council approved further investigations of the possibility of building a reservoir under the city's golf course and got an update on a risk and analysis study that will require making a number of assumptions about climate change and population growth in Aspen.

And in a water court filing last week, the city chose not to address substantive issues raised about its applications by state officials.

The city's water attorney, Cindy Covell of Alperstein and Covell, filed a response to a "summary of consultation" prepared by the division engineer in Glenwood Springs.

 Covell said that Aspen "understands that it must meet the required burden of proof at trial," but otherwise she left the concerns of state officials unaddressed.

Those concerns include whether the city can obtain permits for the dams and build them within a reasonable period of time.

The questions raised in the summary of consultation remain open in the case, however, and may be addressed in the future at trial, as Covell suggested. 

Aspen Journalism is an independent nonprofit news organization collaborating with The Aspen Times on coverage of rivers and water. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.