River health for Aspen’s Roaring Fork is question of funding
Untreated, polluted water flowing into the Roaring Fork River in the heart of Aspen and failing underground storm water infrastructure has the municipal government looking for new revenue streams to put toward an underfunded clean river program.
The city has made progress with capturing and filtering runoff before it hits the Roaring Fork from the Aspen Mountain basin on the south side of the river, with catch basins and wetlands near the Rio Grande park and trail.
But on the north side of the river, where east end neighborhoods and homes on Red Mountain are located, untreated storm water runoff goes directly into the Roaring Fork.
That is one likely cause of why the state has put the Roaring Fork on its watch list of impaired waterways, said April Long, the city’s clean river program manager.
Long has been charged with finding new revenue sources to fund the storm water department and clean river program in which almost $19 million in capital projects have been identified.
Ramping up the program is a priority that Aspen City Council zeroed in on earlier this year as it learned it is woefully underfunded.
“The real problem is we don’t have any capital programmed into the out years,” City Finance Director Pete Strecker told council during a budget work session in October.
The clean river program has been underfunded since a previous council several years ago agreed to walk back a fee that was placed on developers based on the impervious square footage of their projects.
Council eliminated the development fee to relieve the financial burden on developers during the last recession.
Established in 2008, the fee generated between $800,000 and $1 million in its best years, and it represented roughly 50% of the funding for the program, according to Long.
The main funding source for the clean river program now is a property tax passed by voters in 2007 and put in place in 2008. It generates about $1.2 million annually.
But with underground corrugated metal pipes that are more than 40 years old and are rusting out, replacing just a third of the infrastructure is anticipated to cost $4 million, according to Long.
“We built a program based on a $2 million (annual) revenue stream and promised the community we would do it,” she said last week. “Only half of it is done.”
City Engineer Trish Aragon noted it costs more to replace pipes in emergency situations, and getting out in front of it is a better use of taxpayer money.
“It’s all underground infrastructure that’s failing,” she said, “and it’s expensive.”
COMMUNITY’S TOP CONCERNS
The department has identified just under two dozen projects that would create a more robust clean river program and address some of the state’s concerns.
One of them that will get some preliminary attention next year is designing a catch basin on the north side of the river at Mill Street and Gibson Avenue, near the old powerhouse.
It would collect runoff from the east end residential complexes including Hunter Creek and Centennial and some of Red Mountain.
The clean river program was established in 2006 and council at the time selected an aggressive approach to it.
Voters reinforced that notion by passing the mill levy, but Long said the program is coming up short from the community’s expectation to effectively manage storm water and river health.
“Regardless of the state’s list, this program isn’t supporting our community’s desire,” Long said. “We are discharging pollution into our river.”
The state is continuing to collect data to find the causes of why aquatic life in the Roaring Fork is in jeopardy.
Long told council in October that polluted runoff, erosion of the riparian area on the river banks due to development and low flows during the late summer and early fall all contribute to difficult survival conditions for aquatic life.
“We try to improve the quality of that water through education, regulation and treatment,” she said.
Long also told council that for the past 14 years the Roaring Fork has been a top priority for residents.
“The health of the river is the community’s top concern when we do our citizen survey,” she said, adding that it ranked higher than affordable housing or transportation issues.
FINDING THE FUNDS
Council members in October signaled to Long that the clean river program is important and should be funded adequately.
Councilwoman Rachel Richards said a development fee is appropriate.
“We need to relook at this. … This is about the creation of impervious surfaces that don’t absorb water and create more runoff,” she said. “We should do something before the next recession hits.”
Councilwoman Ann Mullins concurred and said the message of protecting the health of the Roaring Fork River needs to be emphasized in the community.
“(The conversation) is always off to the side as infrastructure projects but it’s much more important than that and we need to describe them as much more dire,” she said. “We’ve been trying to elevate this discussion for several years.”
Long and Aragon are beginning to look at funding options based on what other municipalities do, as well as other research and brainstorming exercises.
The establishment of some type of fee, along with grants and creating special districts in neighborhoods where the infrastructure needs to be done are options on the table.
Long said she plans to bring funding options, along with prioritized projects with timeframe scenarios to council sometime next year.
“The funding options will depend on the community’s desire,” Long said. “We’ll need to test that with what the community wants.”
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