Mediation session on Aspen hydro project urges creation of ‘board of experts’
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
ASPEN – The mediator of a March 22 meeting that dealt with concerns about Aspen’s proposed Castle Creek hydroelectric project released a report Thursday that says a consensus was reached on several issues, including creation of a “board of experts” that would be given oversight over the operation.
The report, written by Owen Olpin of Teasdale, Utah, addresses the outcome of what was described as a “community mediation session” held at the Aspen Institute and attended by 12 “participants” as well as eight “experts” and a few others. The general public was not invited to the meeting.
However, Olpin noted in his introduction to the report that a public forum will be held at Paepcke Auditorium starting at 5:30 p.m. on June 16 to provide more information and to give citizens an opportunity to ask questions and express views on the project and its potential impacts.
The March 22 mediation session was held about five weeks before the city announced on April 26 that it was switching gears with regard to the project. In a special meeting, the Aspen City Council voted to withdraw its request for a “conduit exemption” from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). 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 stream flows, ecosystems and surrounding areas.
Instead, the city will seek a license for a “minor water power project,” a designation that likely would 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 valid reason for the change in direction. The mediation session is said to have played a role in the city’s decision not to seek the conduit exemption from FERC.
Among the participants in the closed-door mediation session were representatives of the city of Aspen, the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board, Aspen Skiing Co. and the Community Office for Resource Efficiency. A few local citizens were present, including Castle Creek and Maroon Creek landowners. Experts for the city and also the county’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Board – which has raised concerns about the project as well as data supplied by the city – were on hand to provide information.
The report states that there was unanimous consensus for a board of experts to:
• Approve in advance the details of the initial “slow start” of hydropower diversions and specify, as well as modify from time to time as needed, the details of a rigorous monitoring plan including the impacts to be monitored.
• Make regular and ongoing determinations regarding the project’s effects on stream health based upon data collected pursuant to the monitoring plan.
• Impose such additional limitations upon project operations and diversions as may be required to fully protect healthy functioning stream ecosystems.
“The participants urge city collaboration with organizations like American Rivers, Healthy Rivers and Streams and other sources of expertise and experience, to the end that an exemplary level of environmental responsibility for Castle and Maroon creeks characterizes the project going forward,” Olpin’s report states.
The board of experts would be made up of three members: one representing the city, one connected with Healthy Rivers and Streams and another from the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
Critics of the project have charged that the city was trying to sidestep environmental oversight through its pursuit of the conduit exemption. Many concerns have dealt with the amount of water that would be taken from Castle Creek during seasons of low runoff, as well as the effects of noise on those who live near the plant.
In November 2007, a majority of Aspen voters approved $5.5 million in bonds for a new hydroelectricity facility on Castle Creek. Critics have said that voters weren’t provided many details leading up to the vote and pointed out the low voter turnout in that election.
Last year, the city authorized $2.3 million on construction of a pipeline from Thomas Reservoir to the site of the proposed plant turbine. Opponents claimed the city was putting its cart before the horse, since it did not have federal approval for the hydro plant. However, the city said the pipe also serves as an emergency drain line for the reservoir.
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