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Aspen changes direction on hydro plan

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – The city of Aspen is switching gears – but not shutting off the motor – in its drive to seek federal approvals for a proposed hydroelectric power plant on Castle Creek.

Following a closed-door session Tuesday afternoon, the City Council voted 5-0 in a special meeting to push ahead with plans to withdraw its request for a “conduit exemption” from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). That exemption would have allowed the city to move forward on the hydro plant without doing a full-blown environmental assessment on the project and its effect on local stream flows, ecosystems and surrounding areas.

Instead, the city will seek a license for a designation with FERC that likely would require a more stringent environmental review and greater federal oversight of the plant, officials said.

City officials cited the need for more support from environmental, community and governmental groups as a valid reason for the change in direction. Recent closed-door sessions with representatives of various organizations, including Pitkin County government and the nonprofit conservation group American Rivers, led to Tuesday’s decision, officials said.

Specifically, the council’s action directs city staff to “pursue discussions” with FERC, Pitkin County, American Rivers and perhaps other groups for their support of the conversion of the conduit exemption application to a “minor water power project license application of 1.5 megawatts or less.”

If those discussions go well, the city will file a motion with FERC that will lead to National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review and the full environmental assessment, officials said.

Prior to the council’s vote, Aspen City Manager Steve Barwick outlined the pros and cons of not seeking the conduit exemption.

Among the drawbacks, he said, are that diversions and pipelines associated with the plant, as well as Thomas Reservoir, which would feed water to Castle Creek, would fall under FERC jurisdiction. “Right now, under the conduit exemption [application], the only thing that would fall under FERC jurisdiction is the pipeline coming out of Thomas Reservoir and they hydro plant itself,” Barwick said.

There also would be a cost increase, he said, given the extra studies that have to be conducted and the extra time required in applying for the different license. It was hoped that with a conduit exemption, work could commence on the hydro plant in spring 2012. Now the city says that if all goes well with the new application, the project might not start until sometime in 2013 or later.

Other negative aspects of foregoing the conduit exemption route, he said, are the city’s continued reliance on coal-fired electricity until the hydro plant is productive and the fact that the “minor water power project license” will have to be renewed periodically. The conduit exemption would have been a permanent license, Barwick said.

“Also on the con side is a decreased predictability of the process,” the city manager said. “This then becomes FERC’s jurisdiction and they decide the NEPA process and the depth of it.”

On the pro side, “We’ve got indications from the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board and from American Rivers that their opposition to this project so far would turn into support,” Barwick said.

Mayor Mick Ireland spoke in favor of the new direction.

“Each year that we delay creating hydropower, 5.5 million pounds of coal … are burned by the city of Aspen,” he said, referring to the negative impact of a portion of the community’s electricity sources.

He said over time, the new hydroelectric power plant would be cost-effective, much more so than the current coal source, given the expected future increase in the price of coal.

The city currently enjoys the third-lowest electricity rates in the state, Ireland said, thanks to 2.7 megawatts of hydropower from Ruedi Reservoir and .5 megawatts from Maroon Creek.

“In addition to those two reasons, it’s the right thing to do,” he said, referring to the environmental impacts of using coal compared with hydropower, a renewable resource. “Carbon is killing our community in so many ways.”

Ireland said the city can also set an example for other communities. “We can create a citizen process, as we promised we would do [recently] when we had a site visit at the Maroon Creek plant,” Ireland said.

“And what the citizens told us is that we should use a more inclusive process, a more rigorous process – that was the overwhelming comment – and you’re listening to that direction today.”

Critics of the project have charged that the city was trying to sidestep environmental oversight through its pursuit of the conduit exemption. Many concerns have dealt with the amount of water that would be taken from Castle Creek during seasons of low runoff, as well as noise impacts on those who live near the plant.

Last year, the city authorized $2.3 million on construction of a pipeline from Thomas Reservoir to the site of the proposed plant turbine. Opponents claimed the city was putting its cart before the horse, since it did not have federal approval for the hydro plant. However, the city said the pipe also serves as an emergency drain line for the reservoir.

In November 2007, a majority of Aspen voters approved $5.5 million in bonds for a new hydroeletricity facility on Castle Creek. Critics have said that voters weren’t provided many details leading up to the vote and pointed out the low voter turnout in that election. Ireland has countered that the low turnout was a moot point; the will of the voters was heard.

Barwick said a community meeting that will completely open to the public will be held sometime in June. At that time, more details about the city’s plans for the plant will be released and discussed, he said.

asalvail@aspentimes.com


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