Thomas Reservoir drainage line project halted

Karl Herchenroeder
The Aspen Times

Editor’s note: The following story has been updated because of reporting errors in the original version.

The Aspen City Council on Monday halted construction plans for the Thomas Reservoir drainage line linked to the proposed Castle Creek hydroelectric plant.

Before council was the recommendation to approve a $40,000 pre-construction project for a drain line for Thomas Reservoir in emergency situations. Council member Adam Frisch expressed concern that moving forward with the drain line would stir up political tension, as the project has been associated with the controversial Castle Creek hydroelectric plant proposal. The proposal was shot down by Aspen voters in November 2012, though the vote was advisory, meaning the council can bring the project back to life.

While the council told city staff to halt construction planning for the drain line, it allowed for $25,000 so that the city can acquire state permits associated with the project. Council agreed to those terms in a 4-1 vote, with Mayor Steve Skadron dissenting. Frisch said he would like council to have renewable energy discussions before it puts anymore money into something that can be tied to hydro.

David Hornbacher, director of the city’s Utilities and Environmental Initiatives, said that with or without a hydroelectric plant on Castle Creek, a drain line at Thomas Reservoir is necessary. For one, it would reduce safety risks associated with flooding, mud slides and other natural disasters.

Skadron said he understands that it’s a public-safety issue, but he’s sensitive to the political nature of the project.

City Manager Steve Barwick pointed out that the city already has undertaken survey and geo-technical work associated with acquiring the permits from the Colorado Department of Transportation. He cautioned against delaying the permitting process because Aspen has come to an understanding with the state, something that could change if it’s put off.

To date, Aspen has spent about $3 million on the emergency drain line, laying about 3,600 feet of it, with 300 feet of construction left. As a cost-saving measure, installation of the final 300 feet was scheduled to coincide with another city utility project, between the Aspen Business Center and the Puppy Smith electric facility.

Barwick said regardless of what happens with hydro on Castle Creek, the request for the emergency drain line will go before council again.

Opponents of the hydroelectric plant, Maureen Hirsch and Maurice Emmer, both spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. As pointed out by council member Dwayne Romero, Hirsch said the state inspections determined the reservoir is not in need of the drain line, claiming the main reason the city wants to install it is to move forward with hydro.

“If I were a martian and I landed in Aspen … and I saw what the city was doing, I would quickly conclude that it is building a hydroelectric facility on Castle Creek,” Emmer said, claiming that coordinators of the project are simply moving forward with hydro by calling it a different name.

Barwick reminded Skadron that the emergency drain line was approved by the previous city council months ago. Even when city staff was told to halt hydro, it was agreed that the drain line needed to be carried out. Skadron voted against the measure because he was in favor of allocating the entire $40,000, not just the $25,000 for CDOT permits.