The Aspen hydro question: Got a crystal ball? |

The Aspen hydro question: Got a crystal ball?

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – For voters pondering the issues surrounding Aspen’s Castle Creek hydroelectric project, it boils down to a matter of faith.

Do you trust that the city is correct when it says the plant will pay for itself, even returning a profit, in the long run? Do you believe officials when they say there are adequate safeguards to ensure that the plant won’t harm the ecosystems of Castle and Maroon creeks in the long term?

And, by replacing the city power utility’s reliance on coal-fired electricity generation, will hydropower, a renewable energy source, have any meaningful impact for the good of the environment, as the city contends?

Likewise, an unbiased vote – there are many who will vote “no” on Referendum 2C simply because they don’t like the proponents, including Mayor Mick Ireland – against the city’s Nov. 6 advisory referendum on the project requires a similar leap into the unknown.

Are the project critics true when they say that the Castle Creek Energy Center initiative is basically a boondoggle with no financial benefits to the community? Are they being honest when – as the unknown Aspen Citizens Committee stated in a flier mailed to local voters last week – they say the hydro project would “kill” the creeks, not only in terms of stream flow but the wildlife that depend on them?

Given the amount of rhetoric being tossed about on both sides of the issue, it would appear that voters need a soothsayer for help in making an informed decision. Realistically, the key that will unlock the answers to the main questions surrounding the hydro issue won’t materialize for another 20 or 30 years.

Still, there is a lively discourse on the topic, some of which will be addressed in this space.

Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for Aspen Skiing Co., represented the city’s point of view during an Aspen Chamber Resort Association political forum last week.

“If you assume the worst on Castle Creek, the city, the county and the state have put in a ‘slow-start’ protocol to ensure the health of the stream. They’ll be monitoring it every year, and if damage is picked up in the analysis, they will ramp the project down,” he said.

Schendler said that if the hydroplant were to operate only during times of peak runoff, it still would be financially viable. But he also took aim at the big picture, saying that Aspen ought to be at the forefront of the war against global warming and the environmental push toward clean and renewable energy.

“What we are faced with here is a question of leadership,” he said. “It’s also about Aspen’s role in the universe.”

The city of Aspen, which operated a hydroelectric facility on Castle Creek from the late 19th century until the early 1960s with no identifiable ill effects on the environment, has been a leader in the clean-energy arena for decades, Schendler pointed out.

“The question becomes, why do we do this when it’s just a little bit of power, when it’s only (replacing) 4,000 tons of coal a year?” he asked. “It’s because Aspen is a lever that can change the world.”

Project opponent Matt Rice, state director of the nonprofit group American Rivers, responded during the forum that while replacing coal-fired energy is a laudable goal, the city’s hydroplant wouldn’t have any meaningful effect on global warming.

“This project is not going to lead to the shutting down of a coal plant,” Rice said. “Coal plants are shutting down anyway. Aspen should be more strategic about this, especially if it’s going to cause harm to the creeks.”

Opponent Maurice Emmer, who recently moved to Aspen and was a leader in the petition drive that forced the city to put the advisory question on the upcoming ballot, also chimed in.

“There are several ways a person can decide how to vote on this issue,” he said. “Some will do it based on a gut feel, an emotion. Some will do it because they want to make a statement regardless of whatever else happens as a result.

“I will cast my vote because I feel the project presents too much risk to these streams,” Emmer continued. “A serious dewatering of the streams. Too much risk to take. The proponents might be correct, (and) there might not be any serious risk, but if there is, they’re not standing behind it with a financial guarantee or anything like that.”

Want to raise the ire of Mayor Ireland?

Tell him the Castle Creek hydropower project is a waste of time and money. Tell him it will ruin the environment, killing fish and cottonwood trees along multimile stretches of Castle and Maroon creeks.

Tell him that local billionaire Bill Koch, who is suing the city over its water rights on Castle Creek, is not the major funding source for the opposition. Some groups opposing the city’s initiative say they are not required to identify their funding sources.

“Let’s be straight with people and tell them who is paying for this,” Ireland said at the start of the City Council’s Oct. 9 meeting.

Project supporters have stressed over the past few years that the opposition consists primarily of wealthy landowners who live along the two creeks. The landowners have water rights and use the streams for their own purposes, including aesthetics to complement their properties and irrigation of their lawns.

Though nonprofit groups such as American Rivers, the Western Rivers Alliance and Trout Unlimited have voiced opposition to the project, supporters believe that such groups have been paid off by the opposition, including Koch and other longtime opponents of Ireland.

“It’s all the guys who are obsessed with government and how horrible they believe it is,” Ireland said.

If voters affirm the project on Nov. 6, Ireland predicted that opponents would try to keep the issue alive in the courts, despite the will of the community.

“There’s something larger at stake here (than hydro) and that is, do you want your community to be run by blackmail?” he asked. “It’s going to be a serious step away from democracy if we can prevail (in the courts) and we are right on the merits, but somebody can make us spend so much money in court. And then they can add that into the cost of the project and argue that it’s not economically feasible. That would be a sad development.”

Put simply, Ireland said, voting in support of the city’s desire to continue the hydroelectric project “is the right thing to do for the planet.”

“It’s the right way to respect the democratic process,” he said. “The project is cost-efficient. The energy from the plant will be clean and renewable. (Supporting the hydro project) asserts local control over our affairs over those who would bully us.”

In addition to the previous comments concerning attributes of the project, Ireland also told The Aspen Times he’s upset with American Rivers, saying the group promised it would not oppose the hydropower project if the city changed its course on the licensing process.

In April 2011, city officials agreed not to pursue a “conduit exemption” from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the licensing authority for a potential hydroplant. The about-face came after negotiations with opponents and others with concerns about the initiative.

The city decided instead to apply for a “minor water power project license,” which would require more stringent environmental review than the “conduit exemption.”

The city did what American Rivers and others at the negotiating table wanted, Ireland said, but then the group reneged on its promise.

Rice doesn’t see it that way. He suggested that to say that American Rivers reneged on a deal is an extreme oversimplification.

“All along, we said we wanted to go down a process, a road with them,” he said.

In addition to the request to drop the “small conduit” application, American Rivers also asked the city to stop all construction associated with the hydroplant, seek out “cutting-edge science” in lieu of the conventional-style hydroelectric systems and bring more community members to the decision-making table, Rice said.

The city didn’t agree to those terms, which resulted in an impasse with American Rivers, he said.

Like other critics, Rice believes the city ignored pleas to study green-energy alternatives to hydroelectric power, such as wind and solar. Another suggestion the critics made was that the city’s hydroelectric power source at Reudi Reservoir could be enhanced and made more efficient, thereby boosting its electricity production.

Dave Hornbacher, Aspen’s utilities director, said the city did study alternative sources and found that they were more expensive and generally unfeasible.

Rice also rejects the widespread contention that opposition to the project is driven by wealthy NIMBYs – people who simply don’t want such a project in their backyards and who refuse to acknowledge the greater good of the hydroelectric facility for the community.

“The landowners have a right to weigh in on the project as much as anyone else,” he said.

If Aspen were to take some other approaches to hydroelectric power, employing cutting-edge technology and a more inclusive public-outreach campaign, American Rivers might be more willing to join them regardless of the opinions of the landowners, Rice said.

In a nutshell, the city’s plans are flawed and there’s too much at stake for the project to continue as it’s currently shaped, he said.

“We just don’t know enough about what will happen down the road,” Rice said. “And under the city’s current plans for the Castle Creek hydro facility, there just isn’t enough bang for the buck.”

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