Short-term projects prioritized as Aspen’s clean river program looks for long-term funding solution |

Short-term projects prioritized as Aspen’s clean river program looks for long-term funding solution

Aspen’s clean river program is underfunded by millions of dollars and aging infrastructure needs are growing

A pair of ducks dive for food in the Jenny Adair Wetlands on N. Mill St. in Aspen on Tuesday, March 4, 2021. The constructed wetlands are a part of the city’s stormwater initiative to reduce pollutants in the Roaring Fork River. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Aspen City Council decided on Tuesday to take a conservative approach to shoring up the deficit in the clean river program, which has $12 million worth of projects on tap that go toward maintaining the health of the Roaring Fork, city infrastructure and public safety.

Instead of pursuing a new revenue source like increasing the existing property tax that funds the clean river program, establishing another city utility, or borrowing against future revenues, council members said during their work session that they want to focus on the short-term needs with grants and partnerships, as well as finding cost savings in municipal government departments.

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 2010 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 April Long, the city’s clean river program manager.

While other fees, such as development review fees and fees-in-lieu of detention, have been established since then, they only fund a small portion of the needs of the program. Currently, fees are estimated to generate approximately $260,000 in 2021.

The main funding source for the clean river program now is a property tax overwhelmingly 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, much more is needed than that to replace them.

The estimated cost to replace storm water pipes is $900 per linear foot and with new infrastructure needed as well, it adds up to a total price tag of $11 million, according to Long.

Because that work is likely not a candidate for grants and partnerships, Long said she will prioritize finding existing money in the city budget to clean the pipes and then video them to see which ones need the more immediate attention.

Current operating costs are about $800,000, which includes paying for five full-time employees across four departments that support the clean river program.

With transfers out of the fund at about $330,000 and annual revenue estimates at $1.6 million, that leaves only $470,000 each year for capital improvements.

Accomplishing the backlog of projects and meeting the goals of the program would take as long as 25 years at that rate of funding and does very little to allow for proactive replacement of failing pipes and infrastructure, according to Long.

Assuming staff is successful in securing 50% of funds needed for water quality improvements through grants and partnerships, between $400,000 and $600,000 would be needed to address one large infrastructure replacement or upgrade each year, resolving the backlog of infrastructure repairs in about 10 years instead of 25, she noted.

Smaller water quality projects, projected to cost $500,000, are more attractive for grants and could cover half of the price, Long said.

Like her counterparts Councilman Ward Hauenstein and Mayor Torre, Councilwoman Ann Mullins said pursuing grants is an effective way to fund the clean river program.

“I think that money is out there and there is no reason not to aggressively pursue them,” she said, adding she’s open to long-term solutions like increasing the mill levy.

Councilwoman Rachel Richards said she isn’t in a position to plan five or 10 years out, especially since the federal government may be funding a multi-billion dollar clean water effort that could help local programs.

“There’s multiple avenues that I think will be potentials for us in the future,” she said. “I don’t like kicking the can down the road at all, but I’m thinking we’re set for what we are planning for 2021, and for 2022 I fully agree with everyone about pursuing the grants and partnerships.”