Federal official: Aspen hydro plan ‘pretty minimal’ | AspenTimes.com

Federal official: Aspen hydro plan ‘pretty minimal’

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission official who is the designated project manager for the proposed Castle Creek Energy Center said Tuesday that the Aspen project is minor compared with most others that the agency is asked to approve.

Jim Fargo, who works in the commission’s Office of Energy Projects in Washington, D.C., was in Aspen for a city-hosted afternoon tour of municipal water-department facilities and infrastructure associated with the project involving Castle and Maroon creeks. At an informational session and public hearing in the Rio Grande Meeting Room, he spoke about the various technical aspects of the commission’s application process.

After the meeting, he spoke about the magnitude of the city of Aspen’s project, which has been a source of continual controversy over the past few years – with the criticisms primarily sparked and voiced by landowners who live within the Castle-Maroon watershed.

“It’s pretty minimal in terms of new facilities being proposed,” Fargo said. “You’ve got two existing diversions that are already diverting water, so these streams have already been feeling the pinch of less water than would originally be in those streams. (Maroon Creek) has a hydro project on it that’s already licensed by (the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission). (Castle Creek) has water sucked out for Aspen’s water supply, along with some irrigation diversions.

“So these are already pretty much working streams. The question is: How much more would this project do to them? It’s not big, in terms of issues, because the only thing really before us, new-facilities-wise, is the small powerhouse. Obviously the amount of people who are concerned about the project is greater than what you would normally see with a project of this magnitude.”

The city has yet to apply for a license through the commission but has provided its notice of intent to do so. Tuesday’s meeting addressed various aspects of the project, including the commission’s permitting process. But it also sought public input on the types of studies necessary to give the federal agency a complete picture of project impacts, environmental and otherwise.

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In basic terms, the city wants to divert water from both Castle and Maroon creeks for a proposed hydroelectric facility on the banks of Castle Creek beneath the Highway 82 bridge. A hydroelectric plant already exists on Maroon Creek a few miles south of Aspen. City officials say they hope to balance hydroelectric production and streamflow between the two creeks and two facilities to suit their power needs in a cost-effective and environmentally safe manner.

Tom Hirsch, who lives on Castle Creek, said that while some environmental studies have been conducted, nothing has addressed the impacts of the peripheral areas surrounding the creek banks. Hirsch is part of a coalition that has filed a lawsuit in state Water Court to stop the project on the grounds that the city doesn’t have water rights to initiate a new hydroelectric project on Castle Creek.

He mentioned a recognized expert in stream ecology who spoke last year at project critic Connie Harvey’s house, making what he described as a “very impressive and very moving” point.

“It’s only the last two or three years, he said, that we’ve come to understand that a lot of the studies we’ve done have been based on outdated modes of thinking,” Hirsch said. “They’ve been based on modes of thinking around a ‘stream channel,’ as if it’s an engineering channel.

“He said what he has learned is that those modes of study were based on the narrowest view of reality. He said that 600 feet on both sides of the stream is a beautiful process that happens like a ‘breathing,’ like a charge-recharge process. And when you diminish the flow of the stream, and what you see in the stream, it affects so much that you don’t see that is outside of the stream banks. And he said that is where the problem is. We’re not studying (it). We’re not understanding the impacts.”

Harvey spoke a few minutes later and mentioned the climate-change issue. She asked whether the project planners have accounted for the impacts of climate change when projecting future streamflows.

“I see you’re looking back a lot of years, but are you looking forward?” she asked. “I haven’t seen much evidence of that. But I’ve seen other studies that suggest that the streams are going to be reduced by as much as 14 percent in the next couple dozen years. Are you taking that into account?”

Ken Neubecher, executive director of the Carbondale-based Western Rivers Institute, said he wants to see some clarity involving monitoring processes planned during the city’s “slow-start process” – in which production would be ramped up slowly for the plant’s first six years while the city studies its effects on streamflow and ecological health.

He said there is a timing discrepancy between studies outlined for the “slow-start process” and those detailed in a so-called “memorandum of understanding” between the city and the Colorado Division of Wildlife, now Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

“What I’d like to see is some modification of the monitoring program and the (memorandum) itself to take this into account,” Neubecher said. “I honestly think the monitoring program needs to be longer, and I think it needs to be a little more clear. I think we do need to establish some monitoring especially in the reaches between the diversions and return flows on Maroon Creek and on Castle Creek.

“These are areas that are going to be pushed down to the minimum streamflow in an average year for as much as half the year. I think we do need to have some way of assessing what those impacts might be and being able to monitor.”

Many project critics and members of local media participated in a city-hosted tour of municipal water facilities, including Thomas Reservoir next to the treatment plant near Doolittle Drive as well as the Castle Creek diversion and its small hydroelectric plant.

Another issue surrounding the project was not addressed during Tuesday’s discussion: a November referendum on whether to continue spending money to finish the Castle Creek Energy Center project, which could include language also asking voters whether the city should continue to seek a permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. City officials have yet to craft the ballot question, which must be shaped and approved by the City Council by late August. The language could become a source of controversy if project critics don’t think it goes far enough in settling the plant’s future.

The referendum is being forced by project opponents who gathered enough voter signatures earlier this year to repeal City Council zoning and land-use decisions approving concepts for the building that will house the plant and the right to construct it.

The commission invites online comments on the project, particularly those pertaining to whether studies are needed on issues that haven’t received enough attention. Submissions may be sent to http://www.ferc.gov/docs-filing/ecomment.asp. Submissions should include “Project No. P-13254” in the subject line.

asalvail@aspentimes.com

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