Aspen leaders renew water rights linked to potential dams
Concerns about the uncertainties of global warming’s potential impacts on Aspen’s water supply topped residents’ fears over building dams as the City Council on Monday unanimously approved renewing water rights for Castle and Maroon creeks.
By a 5-0 vote, council members passed the resolution to extend the conditional water rights so they will essentially serve as an insurance policy should the city’s water supply erode and dams are needed in order to preserve and protect the supply.
Council members said they had to support the extension so that another entity doesn’t grab the water rights in the future, and also to be prepared for a worst-case scenario in the event that the supply deteriorates and cannot serve a population that could be as high as 17,500 fifty years from now. They also emphasized that building dams that could be as high as 155 feet would be a last resort.
“The question is not to build or not to build dams,” Mayor Steve Skadron said. “The issue is whether to keep the water rights … with the due diligence that is upon us.”
Residents and representatives of both Wilderness Workshop and American Rivers spoke in opposition to the water rights, which the city first claimed in 1971. Some said the city hasn’t done the studies necessary to conclude that Castle and Maroon creeks are the proper places for water storage. Others were flat-out against the studies or any type of water-rights renewal.
Former Aspen Mayor Bill Stirling said having the rights and potential to build the dams might be too tempting for a future council to pass up.
“Instead of continuing the rights, think about abandoning those conditional rights,” former Mayor Bill Stirling told the council. “Don’t let this option ever have to be chosen.”
Another resident, Ruth Harrison, said, “It just seems absolutely unnecessary and you’re destroying the two most beautiful places we have. … The only reason to do it would be to stop people from going up there.”
Both creeks meander through pristine valleys that lead to two of the area’s most popular destinations — the Maroon Bells and the ghost town of Ashcroft.
While council members said losing the water rights would mean another interest could claim them, a representative for American Rivers said that isn’t the case.
“No one can take them. No one can buy them,” he said.
Council members, however, expressed a need to be cautious.
“The scariest thing about climate change is unpredictablity,” Councilwoman Ann Mullins said. “And you just don’t know what’s going to happen. … I’m not convinced if we lose the water rights now that in some extreme circumstances there might be a water grab by another municipality.”
Councilman Art Daily agreed.
“It’s simply not in the best interest of our community to give up our conditional rights, until we know with far greater certainty than we have today, if they are not going to be essential to our future well-being,” he said.
A memo to the City Council from Dave Hornbacher, the city’s director of utilities and environmental initiatives, and Margaret Medelling, the utilities portfolio manager, said the rights extension “is not a proposal to actually build the reservoirs at this time.”
However, the city could pursue the dams but would need the water court’s approval. Skadron also agreed with the suggestion of Wilderness Workshop’s conservation director, Will Roush, to collaborate with experts over the future of the two creeks.
Monday’s resolution approval means the city will next go to the water court in Glenwood Springs no later than Oct. 31 to formalize the deal.
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