Bill Stirling: Guest opinion | AspenTimes.com

Bill Stirling: Guest opinion

Bill Stirling
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

The meetings in South Africa last year addressing the Kyoto Protocols emphasized more than ever the growing carbon footprint of the world. The combined disasters of carbon consumption and climate change are equally threatening to the health of our globe. This clearly signaled to me how important it is for us to act locally and how critical a component the proposed Castle-Maroon hydro is in continuing to reduce Aspen’s carbon footprint. Monitoring objectively the health of the two streams was a key for me, as we are in the throes of climate change.

As our world becomes more global and Internet-connected, issues intertwine and often become more complicated. In this spirited debate about the proposed Castle Creek hydro, there are strong, committed environmentalists and friends on opposing sides of this issue. Preserving the health of our two beloved streams and their diverse ecosystems is fundamental and essential to the success of the Castle-Maroon hydro.

I believe that one can support the Castle Creek hydro and also be an advocate for not compromising these dynamic streams. The most essential tool that makes me feel confident and comfortable will be the ongoing monitoring of both Castle and Maroon creeks. Of course, those folks living along the streams and those recreating in and around the streams should be the most concerned and should study all aspects of the Castle Creek hydro carefully. But so should every one of us who wants to always protect and not put in jeopardy the continued good health of these two waterways.

The city has structured and proposed a rigorous, frequent monitoring program by experts and scientists to be certain that these creeks and their ecosystems are fully protected.

Aspen City Council, the Pitkin County commissioners and I, as mayor, helped craft and support the installation of the Reudi Reservoir turbine from 1983 to 1984 and the installation of the mini-hydro on Maroon Creek in the late ’80s. We helped purchase, protect and preserve our senior water rights from 1983 to 1991. And as co-founder and current board member of the Community Office of Resource Efficiency, which four years ago, gave the largest CORE grant ever to the city of Aspen Water and Electric departments to study in depth the pros and cons of the hydro, I’m certain this proposed hydro still looms currently as one of the single-biggest carbon reduction bangs for our buck.

When I voted for the Reudi turbine in 1983, it was one of the largest bond issues in our city’s history. I had to think hard and long about the risks and gains of voting for the turbine at the Aspen City Council table. That bond is now fully paid, and close to $500,000 annually now comes into the city water-electric fund. Today, hydro provides 41 percent of our power.

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Monitoring these two life-giving streams is fundamental to making this hydroelectric project make sense. What makes me feel secure is the memorandum of understanding between the city and Colorado Parks and Wildlife to monitor both creeks using completely independent systems. The annual fall monitoring will be compared to the baseline data, already established and collected almost daily from 2010 to now.

A board of experts and scientists will oversee the monitoring and vet the results of the monitoring, and the results will be made public. Also with an intergovernmental agreement, Pitkin County will join forces with the city in this monitoring process. If there are any negative results, the board of experts will determine why and how to ameliorate any problems. This methodology will guarantee stream health.

As Randy Udall recently observed, there are four key upper-valley riverbeds: the Roaring Fork, Hunter Creek, Maroon and Castle. Why, he asked, “has there not been a hue and cry by the Castle hydro opponents about the diversions from the Roaring Fork and Hunter Creek through pipelines in the wilderness to the Front Range and all of the local water rights lost?”

We see the bare trickles in those creeks year after year in the early fall. The two other oft-used streams, Castle and Maroon, where water rights are still secure and the water is used already for drinking, hydro and snowmaking, are in superb condition and water rights intact due to the stewardship of the city of Aspen lo these many years.

The city would not dare put these streams in jeopardy. For 26 years, Maroon Creek has been providing hydropower to the city, and its vitality is completely intact. The turbine will be used only at 65 percent of capacity in the first year just to be sure all is going well, and the health of the creeks is in no way compromised.

If the grid (the lines and towers) wheeling in the power today to Aspen were to be damaged, fail or be compromised in any way, it is always a good thing to know we would have at least these alternative sources of local hydropower to enable hospitals and senior centers to function in the case of such an emergency. It is interesting that today’s hydro process is still so simple and basic, not unlike earlier times, and the technology is reliable to provide power within the proposed monitoring restrictions, making certain that the health of the streams is not threatened.

Additionally, with the new purchase agreement of excess hydropower from the Ridgway reservoir in southwest Colorado, Aspen can set an example of living smarter and more responsibly in these complicated and challenging times. Already in the city’s power mix are wind and hydropower, and Aspen arguably has the highest percentage of energy sources from renewable sources of any U.S. town. We will be relying on coal less and less with each new strategy. With the Ridgway contract and the Castle hydro, Aspen will reach 97 percent renewable sources of power.

When 72 percent of the residents voted in favor of the hydro project in the first election in 2007, the city began to do what they were directed to do in order to bring the hydro project in on time and on budget. That vote enabled the city to float a $5.5 million bond, and the remaining costs will be paid from the water-electric enterprise fund. We have already spent $6.9 million to date, and the full cost will be just over $10 million. Yes, it has gone over budget. What significant project, public or private, hasn’t? It would be ludicrous now to throw that money away!

The piping is in, the reservoir reinforced, the studies accomplished, the monitoring plan in place and the turbine is purchased. It is going to cost more than originally thought, and the payback will take longer, as the turbine will not produce as much power as soon as originally hoped for. The city is implementing every cautious measure imaginable to be sure the streams are safe and yet the pay back is still firmly in place to eventually pay for the original $5.5 million bond in under 25 years.

Think in terms of reducing further our carbon footprint, maintaining the health of the creeks by objective monitoring, and voting “yes” for the Castle-Maroon hydro to take another giant step towards providing all of our power from almost 100 percent renewable sources of energy. Every possible alternative measure has to be in the mix. It is what I would call a low-risk, high-gain vote. Please do not let that $6.9 million go to waste!