Will Aspen diversion project kill Castle Creek? | AspenTimes.com

Will Aspen diversion project kill Castle Creek?

Aaron Hedge
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

Michael Faas

ASPEN – Jim Markalunas keeps a photo album, filled with memories from his 80 years in Aspen, in his attic on Smuggler Street. Among the images are black-and-whites of his family fishing on Castle and Maroon creeks. He has fished those streams all his life, even though Aspen has diverted large amounts of water from the creeks for hydroelectric power.

In fact, hydropower was Aspen’s sole source of electricity, from 1893 to 1958.

Markalunas, who has been an integral figure in Aspen public works for decades, remembers that the fishing was always good, even when the power plant on Castle Creek was operating at full bore during the early to mid-1900s.

With the water being diverted, “I never saw anything that was deleterious to the stream,” he said.

He admitted, though, that, in those days, there was no way of telling how much water was flowing through the intake valve, two and a half miles upstream from the power plant, which sits under the Highway 82 bridge over Castle Creek.

Now, with a deal pending to build a new hydropower plant on the same property that would take 52 cubic feet per second (cfs) from both streams, environmentalists and property owners along the affected shoreline say there’s no way to be certain the streams will sustain fish populations and thus remain healthy.

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If the City Council approves the project, the city plans to divert 25 cfs from Castle Creek, and 27 cfs from Maroon Creek.

As part of the city’s Canary Initiative – an ambitious effort to become carbon-neutral by 2020 – the hydro project is expected in the next decade to save the city $41,000 a year in energy that it would no longer have to purchase from other power authorities. After that decade, when the $3.92 million in bonds for the project are paid off, the city would save twice that amount, said project director David Hornbacher.

The effort, part of a worldwide movement toward renewable sources of power, would bring the city 8 percent closer to its Canary Initiative goal.

But homeowners along Castle Creek are crying foul, citing a number of problems with the project they say the city has yet to address. Chief among their concerns is an assumption by Aspen utilities officials that the stream would remain healthy after the plant is built. They’re also worried about noise from the proposed plant, and potential problems with their own water wells.

That assertion is based on a city-commissioned study of Castle Creek streamflow conducted over four months this year. It shows that the lowest level Castle Creek can maintain its health at is 13.3 cfs – about level the stream reaches during the frigid winter months. Below that meager level, “it would become a different stream,” said Bill Miller of Miller Environmental Consultants, who conducted the study, at a community meeting in June.

The opposition to the initiative, however, says Miller’s data is shaky at best and offers no guarantee the stream would stay healthy. Miller has declined in public meetings to say whether the stream would be OK, saying questions of that nature should be referred to hydrologists.

Currently, Castle Creek stays at about 14 cfs in February and March, before starting to rise in the spring. The plant would shut down during winter to maintain the minimum flow, and other power resources, including the Ruedi Reservoir hydropower plant and electricity Aspen buys from a Nebraska power authority, would pick up the load.

During other times of the year, Castle Creek typically runs between 50 and 70 cfs.

But if the project is implemented, the diversions could extend Castle Creek’s low-water period by four months, calling into question how long the stream can sustain itself, and sustain all the creatures that depend on it, at that level.

Tom Starodoj, a longtime resident of Sneaky Lane, just downstream from where the water would be released back into the creek, said taking 25 cfs from Castle Creek when it is running below 50 cfs would be detrimental.

“You don’t have to be a scientist to determine that if you take 75 percent of that water out, it will be running at a trickle,” Starodoj said.

Hornbacher said that concern would be addressed by a study of the river’s health to be conducted by the Colorado Division of Wildlife for one year after the power plant starts operating. City officials plans to conduct similar studies over the subsequent decade. If scientists find something wrong, Hornbacher said, the hydropower operation would have to make voluntary adjustments to fix the problem – reducing water diversions for a period of time, if necessary.

But Councilman Torre expressed concern at the City Council’s regular meeting two weeks ago that it would be difficult to “retrofit” the operation to correct unforeseeable problems.

“Council’s message … was pretty clear: You’re not gonna do this at the expense of the stream,” Hornbacher said, adding that no other green energy projects of this size have committed themselves to such a comprehensive study.

But the opposition questions why the results of the city’s studies will be released a year after they are completed.

“If I went to get a biopsy … but the doctor says you get the results in a year, that’s kind of ludicrous,” said Maureen Hirsch, another Sneaky Lane resident who has studied water rights and city water policy for the last several years.

Mayor Mick Ireland has wondered aloud whether, if doesn’t use its water rights on Castle and Maroon creeks, if it could lose the water to downvalley communities or Front Range water districts.

Tom Hirsch, another Sneaky Lane resident, said the reaction to that concern should not be to divert more water.

“They don’t see the illogic of ‘I’m afraid of losing my water to the Front Range, so, in response, let’s dewater the stream,'” Hirsch said.

Paul Noto, an Aspen water attorney who is working with the opposition to the power plant, said that would be “legally impossible” because Aspen owns the two most senior water rights on Castle Creek, and the third is occupied by a homeowner’s association on Castle Creek.

He cited a number of case law rulings that have made it more difficult for Western Slope water to be diverted to the Front Range.

“The proposal would involve a ‘two pass’ diversion, which has never been done before,” Noto said in an e-mail to The Aspen Times.

The Front Range “would be the last in line,” he said in an interview. “That’s the way it works. It’s a priority system.”

He added that fears of losing water to other parts of the state come from past deals that relied on water law loopholes that are no longer in place.

“We live in a different regulatory world than we did,” he said.

Phil Overeynder, Aspen’s director of public works, said the full amount of water Aspen is legally allowed to take from Castle Creek – 160 cfs – is far more than the stream produces during most of the year.

Early this month, Hornbacher steered one of Aspen’s hybrid SUVs through the Twin Ridge development, just below Thomas Reservoir, where the city’s water from Castle and Maroon creeks is stored. As the vehicle crested the hill on Doolittle Road at the top of the subdivision, he pointed to the dam that holds the water, which is treated for drinking at the adjacent plant.

A 1989 study of the 117-year-old earthen dam showed there was no risk of public hazard, Hornbacher said, because during the study there were no homes below the water. Twin Ridge wasn’t built until 1991.

Now that the houses are in place, Hornbacher and Overeynder said, a safeguard is overdue to protect the homes beneath the dam. That need was determined by Denver-based McLaughlin Water Engineering, a consultant for the city.

About a half-mile down the hill, next to Aspen Valley Hospital, crews are making progress on a pressurized 42-inch water pipeline from Thomas Reservoir to the proposed building site for the plant on Castle Creek. That water is meant to turn hydropower turbines and produce electricity, but the pipeline is being installed regardless of whether the hydropower project is approved.

Overeynder said the pipeline would merely function as a drainline if the City Council rejects the hydropower plant. If the project is approved, however, the line can be built in order to generate power or act as a drain, depending on the circumstances.

Either way, the diverted water returns to Castle Creek. (None of the water taken from Maroon Creek will return to it.)

“It’s a non-consumption use,” Hornbacher said. “… The water actually has a use and then returns back to the stream.”

The city has yet to apply for permission from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which requires an environmental impact study, to construct the line.

In a statement to the City Council this month, project staff recommended that the city not apply for a FERC license because, “Preparation of a an EIS would … delay the project, add to the cost of the project, and jeopardize the project economics.”

Opponents of the hydro project are leery of this tactic, and feel the city ought to acquire all necessary licenses before construction. They also point to 1995, when the city was scrutinized by FERC for a number of what Overeynder called design and operational “flaws” in the Maroon Creek hydroelectric plant.

Thirty-four percent of the city’s existing power is produced by on the windswept plains of Nebraska, and purchased from a power authority there. So why not pursue more renewable energy from resources elsewhere, instead of the streams that are part of Aspen’s identity?

Overeynder has said in meetings that the city is already using as much solar and wind power as it legally can. And while hydropower may seem like an archaic method that has been used for more than a century in Aspen, it is proven to be reliable, said Markalunas, who ran Aspen’s water operations for decades.

In 1958, the city switched from its historic hydropower system and turned to coal power from Holy Cross Energy, which the regional cooperative was offering at extremely low prices. But in 1961, the power lines in Aspen went down during a massive Labor Day snowstorm. Technicians from Holy Cross worked for days before they could find the problem. Meanwhile, Aspen residents were unable to use their heaters and lights.

Markalunas told the city he could start the plant back up and provide power while Holy Cross figured out what was wrong. After getting permission he said he had power going within hours.

Subsequently, however, the city converted the power plant into a storage shop for maintenance operations – taking away that backup power source.

“It was the stupidest thing they ever did,” Markalunas said.

Now, city officials say Aspen needs the Castle Creek hydro plant to re-establish its energy independence.

Mayor Ireland pointed in the City Council meeting to a bizarre environmental conundrum presented by the hydropower plant: Should the city move 8 percent toward its carbon-neutral goal at the possible cost of degrading Castle and Maroon creeks?

Ireland leaned toward pushing the Canary Initiative, as that goal represents a larger global environmental problem.

Hornbacher said it would save money in royalties the city pays to the Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska, which costs more to send through hundreds of miles of power lines to Aspen.

But Tom Hirsch said the project would have unexpected consequences, not just on the stream, but on the broad, vibrant ecosystem it sustains.

Castle and Maroon creeks are home to a number of fish species, including rainbow and brown trout and mottled sculpin, as well as birds, invertebrates and small and large mammals – a community Hirsch said is not a fair trade for an 8 percent gain in the Canary Initiative.

“Let’s say it’s 10 percent. Doesn’t matter. … We’re taking away the body and soul of why we came here,” he said.

And with no clear definition of a “healthy stream,” the Castle Creek residents feel the project is more of a public relations gesture than a substantive green effort.

“They just decided it looks green; and said, ‘Let’s go ahead and do it,'” Starodoj said.

ahedge@aspentimes.com