History does not bode well for hydro
November 4, 2012
I have a lot of respect for Randy Udall. When it comes to renewable-energy needs, his voice is strong and should be heeded. In his recent guest opinion (The Aspen Times, Oct. 22), he shows less understanding about how stream ecosystems work.
His quote from Luna Leopold is spot-on: “The health of our rivers is the principal measure of how we live on the land.” So far, the amount of water diverted from Castle and Maroon creeks for the city’s needs has been low enough to maintain good health.
But the current diversions are at the upper limit of what can be taken without greatly increasing the risk of degradation. No one disputes that both streams are in good shape right now. It’s the future, when the diversions for hydropower double the amount of water removed, that worries me.
The hydro plant will increase diversion from the current 26 percent to 32 percent out of Castle Creek during 10 months of the year to 43 percent to 64 percent. That’s a huge amount of water.
The minimum streamflow will be met – the barest minimum. Both Castle and Maroon creeks will be subject to a man-made drought, according to the city’s own numbers, for more than half the year. And that’s for a “normal” year.
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But minimum flows aren’t enough. Streams all across Colorado are suffering from the permanent drought of minimum streamflows. Anticipated lower flows and warmer temperatures from what Randy calls the “siege by global warming” will further diminish the streams, adding to the impacts from hydropower dewatering.
The streams won’t dry up completely, and the riparian zone still will have plants growing in it, but chances are it will be much less diverse and resilient.
Randy’s analogy of the forests recovering from the clear cutting was interesting, too. Look at the old photos of Aspen or any other mining town. The hills are bare. The diverse old-growth forest was cleared for buildings, railroad ties and mine timber.
A new forest came up to replace the old. It was mostly an even-age stand of a single species, lodgepole pine. This forest was much less resilient than the one it replaced. The result is all around us in the millions of acres lost to beetle kill.
That same scenario is happening in the dewatered riparian zone of the upper Colorado and could happen on Castle and Maroon creeks in the future.
Will we notice the damaged ecosystems 30 years from now just by looking at them? Not likely. Aldo Leopold (Luna’s father) commented, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
Most of us came to Colorado years ago and looked on the vast mountain forests as “pristine.” Now we see just how damaged they really were. The same is happening with many stream ecosystems we see today and think are “healthy.”
Will this happen to Castle and Maroon creeks? Maybe not, but the science and our experience show that it is likely when that much water is removed.
Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
We have more creative options for energy. The streams have no such options for water.