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Bells bathrooms left high and dry

Mother Nature has left the U.S. Forest Service high and dry at the Maroon Bells.

The drought has limited the effectiveness of a “micro-hydro plant” that’s part of an alternative energy system that supplies power for the bathrooms near Maroon Lake.

Aspen District Ranger Jim Upchurch said the flow in the stream where the hydro plant is located never became strong enough for the system to work as designed.



Electricity for the building is primarily supplied by a small generator operating on water pressure. Water is piped several hundred feet downhill from a mountain spring. A jet of pressurized water spins a propeller on the generator. That produces power that charges batteries.

The electricity is needed for the bathroom lights and for fans in the composting toilets. The alternative energy source has worked well for two years, but this spring didn’t produce enough water, said Upchurch.



A fuel-fed generator had to be taken to the site to charge the batteries, but that was out of place in the pristine environment.

“You don’t want to hear a generator humming along,” said Upchurch.

Once the batteries were charged, the micro-hydro plant was able to produce enough power to maintain them, he said. Nevertheless, the Forest Service is seeking another water source in case the flow drops even lower. One possibility is tapping into a nearby stream and piping the water to the hydro plant.

The hydro plant is supplemented by photovoltaic panels, also known as solar electric, and a small wind turbine.

Upchurch said the Aspen Ranger District hasn’t run into problems with wells running dry at its campgrounds. The district has eight campgrounds up Independence Pass and on Maroon Creek Road.

The Sopris District hasn’t been so lucky. The well at the Redstone campground went dry even before the drought hit with a vengeance this year. Some wells have also gone dry in campgrounds around Ruedi Reservoir.

The Forest Service is advising campers to bring their own water regardless of where they camp, just in case.

Upchurch said the drought and fire danger haven’t seemed to reduce the number of visitors to campgrounds accessible by vehicles. Backcountry travel appears to be down, possibly due to a perception that fire presents too great a danger to safety, he said.

[ Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.]


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