Mayor defends Aspen’s course on hydro project |

Mayor defends Aspen’s course on hydro project

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland on Thursday defended the city’s plan to establish a hydroelectric power plant using Castle Creek streamflows during a public forum in which other speakers and audience members hinted at alternative concepts or suggested that the project would harm the environment.

“I’ve been in Aspen long enough to know the truism, ‘to delay is to deny,’ ” Ireland said, in reference to one speaker’s idea that the city should switch gears and explore other ways of tackling the project.

“I think there are opponents of this project who absolutely, under no circumstance, want to see it happen. The strategy in Aspen has traditionally been, ‘Well, we’ll get a new council in two years and we’ll get a new outcome.’ And we have had things in Aspen that should have been done 30 or 40 years ago because of the strategy of delay.”

Ireland and others were participating in “Hydropower in Aspen” at the Aspen Institute’s Paepcke Building. The presentation and panel discussion, which allowed questions from the audience, was hosted by the Western Rivers Institute, a Carbondale-based nonprofit that advocates healthy rivers and ecologically responsible development of hydropower.

Ireland’s comments about opponents seeking to delay the project followed remarks by Richard Roos-Collins, an attorney with California-based Water and Power Law Group PC. For more than two decades he has represented agencies, nonprofits and others in resource-management cases.

Roos-Collins said the route the city is taking to apply for Federal Energy Regulatory Commission permission to create a hydro plant – a process that solicits comments for and against the initiative – commonly creates an “us [versus] them dynamic.”

“What if Aspen did something different? What if Aspen affirmatively encouraged alternative designs to be brought forward, before committing to a particular proposal? It’s almost never done. It would be a very significant reform in how hydropower is designed, built and regulated, and it might result in a better project,” he said.

Roos-Collins mentioned a nonprofit organization in Portland, Maine: The Low Impact Hydropower Institute. It seeks participation in a voluntary program designed to certify and reward hydro projects that reduce their environmental impacts based on specific criteria.

“[Low Impact Hydropower Institute’s] mission is to reduce the impacts of hydropower dams through market incentives,” the nonprofit’s website states. “LIHI does this through its Hydropower Certification Program, a voluntary certification program designed to help identify and reward hydropower dams that are minimizing their environmental impacts. Just as an organic label can help consumers choose the foods and farming practices they want to support, the LIHI certification program can help energy consumers choose the energy and hydropower practices they want to support.”

Roos-Collins said the program is just one example of “the kind of ingenuity that I think is really advisable in this process.”

Asked how he felt about such an idea, Ireland said he wasn’t familiar with it, and he wasn’t sure what the program would entail.

“I don’t know,” Ireland said. “Somebody would have to describe it in detail, not here on a stage. [It’s like asking,] ‘What do you think of healthcare in Massachusetts? You have 30 seconds.’ I just went through that process. It’s called an election.”

Earlier in the forum, Ireland said the city’s plans respect the ecosystems of Castle and Maroon creeks. He said the renewable-energy project will be another way in which Aspen sets an example for other communities by working to reduce the carbon footprint and its dependency on coal-generated power.

The city in late April announced a change with regard to its plan for the Castle Creek hydroelectric facility. In a special meeting, the Aspen City Council voted to withdraw its request for a “conduit exemption” from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. That exemption would have allowed the city to move forward on the hydro plant without doing a full-blown environmental assessment on the project and its effect on local streamflows, ecosystems and surrounding areas.

Instead, the city will seek a license for a “minor water power project,” a designation that likely will require a more stringent environmental review and greater federal oversight of the plant. City officials cited the need for more support from environmental, community and governmental groups as a reason for the change in direction. The city achieved some of that support during a closed-door mediation session at the Aspen Institute in March.

Despite the city’s change in plans to obtain a license that will require more stringent environmental reviews, some of the speakers at Thursday’s forum spoke of working toward a higher “gold standard” of protection for the Castle Creek ecosystem.

Other participants in the forum included David Hornbacher, the city’s new director of utilities; John Emerick, a retired professor from the Colorado School of Mines; Cynthia Covell, an attorney for the city who specializes in water law; and Matt Rice, who leads the conservation program for the group American Rivers.

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