City pulls $750K drainline project | AspenTimes.com

City pulls $750K drainline project

Karl Herchenroeder
The Aspen Council

The Aspen City Council reversed its decision to spend $750,000 on an emergency drainline associated with the controversial Castle Creek Energy Center on Monday after city staff admitted mistakes in communicating the issue to officials and the public.

To date, the city has invested about $7 million in the estimated $10.5 million hydro project, which was halted in 2012 when 51 percent of Aspen voters shot it down during an advisory election. The 3,900-foot drainline, which was originally intended to source the hydroelectric plant with water from Thomas Reservoir, is about 91 percent complete but is currently capped and inoperable.

On May 27, the Colorado Department of Natural Resources conducted a scheduled inspection, which found the reservoir to be a "significant hazard," meaning damage is expected with a dam failure while the reservoir is at the high-water line. Aspen's Utilities Manager Dave Hornbacher admitted Monday that he misrepresented the issue to the council in October, when he gave officials the impression that it was a safety issue and state recommendations called for the drainline.

"Clearly, I could have done a better job, and I sincerely apologize for any misunderstanding or confusion or lack of diligence," Hornbacher said.

Hornbacher explained that staff presented its recommendation as if it were based solely on the dam inspection, when in fact, officials also considered opportunities to address the potential for property damage near the drainline.

Assistant City Manager Randy Ready, who also admitted mistakes in his delivery to the council, made the case that staff was blinded by the opportunity to address two issues at once. He said that a question from the council that staff failed to respond to was, "How do we minimally meet the dam inspector's requirements?"

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Based on that question, staff failed to explore all options before making a recommendation to the council, Hornbacher said. By pulling the $750,000 expense, the project has been put on hold. The council is expected to address it again at a future work session, this time with outside analysis on the dam risks and mitigation options.

A visibly frustrated Councilman Adam Frisch said his confidence in staff has been shaken.

"I can't sit here and get anymore future reports from you and have the confidence you know what's being asked or I know what I'm hearing from you," Frisch said, adding that he needs to be able to rely on city staff, as it is not his job to sift through and verify technical data on every issue.

Mayor Steve Skadron was less pointed, agreeing with Hornbacher that the failure throughout the process was a communication breakdown.

"That is a significant difference between an intentional misrepresentation and, I'll speak for myself here — I don't feel in any way that an intentional misrepresentation was the issue here," Skadron said. "It is my full expectation that (the miscommunication) will be addressed in the future."

Councilman Dwayne Romero said that when the first recommendation was made, he specifically asked if the reservoir was creating a public-safety issue.

"You said, 'Look it's true we have the dam inspection, and we must respond to it,'" Romero said. "That statement tells me that you were responding to the state-level requirements, and yet I hear tonight that it was two-fold. Now I'm hearing tonight that it's a broader, city-wide requirement."

Councilwoman Ann Mullins said she is looking forward to exploring all options to address the state's concern, while Councilman Art Daily laid out information he thinks the council needs at the upcoming work session.

"I want you guys to help us understand how do we efficiently meet the state's requirement in the dam report," he said. "Secondly, if there are additional city responsibilities and concerns around reservoir safety, well, identify those for us, clearly and specifically. With that, I think we can move forward effectively here."

herk@aspentimes.com