Pitkin County, city of Aspen will square off in water court over dams
December 21, 2016
Pitkin County has joined the opposition against the city's potential building of dams on Castle and Maroon creeks.
County commissioners voted 3-2 at a special hearing Tuesday to challenge the city's "due diligence" renewal application that was filed Oct. 31 in District 5 Water Court in Glenwood Springs.
The vote comes with Dec. 31 looming as the deadline for organizations or individuals to introduce opposition to the city's application, which the city must renew every six years to demonstrate it is serious about maintaining its conditional rights on the two streams.
"From the (City Council's) perspective, it's about future security and the preservation of our water rights," said Mayor Steve Skadron on Tuesday. "In reality, this filing is an action demanded by the state to protect our rights to our drinking water."
Representatives from conservation groups Wilderness Workshop of Carbondale and Washington, D.C.-based American Rivers also have said they are considering filing opposition briefs.
Alternatives to dams?
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Since 1971 the city has held a "place in line," which was granted by the water court, to address its water supply; it secured conditional water rights to build reservoirs on Maroon and Castle creeks in 1965.
Those conditional water rights allow the potential for the building a 9,062-acre-foot reservoir in Castle Creek Valley and 4,567-square-foot reservoir in Maroon Creek Valley.
The city — anticipating population growth from its current population of nearly 7,000 to 17,500 within 50 years, along with climate change-induced droughts affecting the water supply — has said that reserving the rights to build damns in the two valleys is essential. Both creeks supply Aspen's drinking water.
"The science confirms that Aspen's climate is already changing and will continue to do so," Ashley Perl, the city's climate action manager, said in a city-issued statement released Monday in advance of the county commissioners' decision. "Aspen now sees 23 days less of winter than in the years before 1980. This trend is projected to continue and Aspen's current water storage — our snowpack — will diminish."
American Rivers' Matt Rice, who is director of the nonprofit's Colorado Basin Program, told The Aspen Times earlier this month that the city would be making a significant mistake by pursuing the course of dams.
"The city will say this is an opportunity for the city of Aspen, right now, to preserve this part of the city's legacy," he said. "I would flip it around: This is an opportunity to protect an important place and make sure these projects are never built, and there are plenty of opportunities to dig in and find solutions."
To that end, the city's Water Department has drafted a preliminary list for potential options to reservoirs that include:
Using mine tunnels for underground water storage.
Promote legislative solutions to water rights use limitations.
Evaluate additional water resources, including wells, mines, other water rights, ditches and reusing water for potable use.
Engage ditch companies and other agriculture owners/operators in exploring the use of agricultural water to supplement municipal supply.
Form collaborative partnerships with trans-basin water diverters to retain additional Western Slope source water.
Naturally enrich the watershed to retain water resources longer, including enhancements to landscaping, irrigation efficiencies and in-stream flow.
"City Council has asked if we are confident that we can meet water need scenarios in the future without these reservoirs," City Manager Steve Barwick said in a prepared statement. "The answer is 'no.' We need to develop reliable alternatives to reservoirs or we will end up with reservoirs."
Dave Hornbacher, the city's director of Utilities and Environmental Initiatives, said he wants community involvement as the city weighs its options.
"We would be inviting the county as well as the opposers to really participate with the city in a collaborative process that defines the needs and resources," he said. "Our hope is to build some genuine excitement in getting people interested to truly participate."
Past renewals have attracted little fanfare. This time, however, it's different.
"There's just heightened awareness about water and more people being involved in these issues," Hornbacher said.
County a friendly foe
Commissioners struck a diplomatic tone about challenging the city, mostly agreeing they didn't like the idea of facing their municipal counterparts in court.
Commissioners Steve Child and Rachel Richards voted against the county filing a "statement of opposition," but were outnumbered by Patti Clapper, George Newman and Michael Owsley.
The Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams board initially recommended the opposition."This board does not support new construction of impoundments of these creeks," said a Nov. 17-dated letter from the board to county commissioners.
Clapper said the county should have a seat at the table with the city in water court; settlement discussions could last for as long as 18 months.
"To me this is difficult to do because we try to be good neighbors and good friends with the city of Aspen," Clapper said. "But I think there are bigger issues."
She added: "The thought of these dams in those pristine valleys is an overwhelming concept to me and really needs to have great thought and conversation. I'm hoping that this next year that we'll be at that table with the city to really look at other options before taking this drastic measure."
Both Child and Richards said they didn't support the county's opposition because, in part, the city has proven itself to be environmentally responsible.
"Two things at stake here are both resources and relationships, and I have a hard time seeing two different taxpaying entities spending money fighting each other and it's the same taxpayers paying for it," Richards said. "That's problematic for me."
Richards emphasized she doesn't support the building of dams but noted the county will have numerous opportunities to discuss the issue of reservoirs, should they come to pass, through the permitting process and addressing the National Environmental Policy Act.
Newman and Clapper, however, endorsed opposing the city because the stakes are too high for them not to.
"Here we're looking at most iconic valleys in the country, Castle Creek and Maroon Creek. … There are other ways to preserve the needs for the city, through conservation measures, legislative measure," Newman said.