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Aspen to unplug the West End

John Colson

Aspen’s irrigation ditches have fallen into disuse over the last couple of decades, and the city wants to do something about it.

And that may mean some West End landowners will have to tear out gardens, boulders and other landscaping they have filled the old ditches with over the years.

That means it is possible the city will run afoul of some local homeowners who have grown accustomed to using the ditches as landscaping features.

The City Council on Monday adopted, on first reading, an ordinance that calls for the city parks department to “properly maintain the city of Aspen ditches.”

This may mean some property owners in the historic and exclusive West End neighborhood will be told to remove gardens, ponds and other “water elements” from the city’s right of way.

According to a memo by Parks Field Supervisor Tom Rubel, the city has water rights on several ditches that run through town, which carry water from the Si Johnson, Wheeler and Durant Mine ditches.

Historically, the ditches have carried water to the roots of the huge cottonwood trees planted throughout town, as well as to landowners with pastures adjacent to the city and to homeowners within the city limits.

Various city councils have talked about fixing up the old ditches, both as a historic issue and as a practical way to water trees in the city’s rights of way.

Rubel reported the Si Johnson ditch carries water from Castle Creek into the West End, and the Wheeler ditch, which flows from the Roaring Fork River, splits at Glory Hole Park to head for the two pedestrian malls in the downtown core and to lower Rio Grande Park.

“The ditches were designed for function and practicality to be straight and unlined,” Rubel wrote in his memo. “However, over the last several years many ditches in the West End have been landscaped with flowers, rocks and ponds, making it difficult to access the ditch for maintenance.”

One problem with these modifications to the ditch rights of way, which belong to the city, is that they have cut the flow of water to several users that have water agreements with the city, including the Aspen Institute, Aspen Meadows and the Music Associates of Aspen.

These three organizations, Rubel wrote, “have a water agreement with the city that we provide them with 2.5 cfs [cubic feet per second] of water and we are currently barely meeting that requirement.”

In addition, according to the city, because the alterations of the ditch channels slow the flow of water, silt has accumulated in culverts underneath the streets, resulting in small floods on occasion.

Rubel’s memo suggested the council could order the removal of the landscaping and other features within three years, or simply order that the modifications be removed whenever the properties in question are next sold.

He also suggested the city could set up a “grandfather” clause, essentially giving official sanction for all existing modifications and alterations of the ditches, but prohibiting any further changes.

Rubel’s proposals met with little resistance from the City Council, beyond protests by council member Jim Markalunas, a resident of the West End neighborhood and the only one who voted against the ordinance.

Markalunas argued that the city should provide some leeway to property owners who want to beautify their yards, and objected to what he termed the “heavy-handed approach” of ordering landowners to get rid of landscaping features in three years.

“I was just a little irritated at the tone of the memo,” he said, adding that he is in favor of keeping the ditches operational and flowing freely.

The council directed the parks department to come up with a set of recommendations for dealing with the situation, including details about how many alterations have been made to the ditches.

A public hearing on the ordinance is scheduled for July 24.


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