Connie Harvey: Guest opinion
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
Letting go is hard to do – especially of one’s most cherished prejudices! I’m a walking example of this myself. What could possibly be wrong with a hydro-electric project, right here in our enlightened community, so committed to renewable energy that we have our very own “Canary Initiative” devoted to making Aspen green and clean? Flowing water powering turbines to produce electricity is surely a non-consumptive, non-polluting use, right? No greenhouse gas emissions there. So what’s not to like?
On closer examination, plenty. The so-called Castle Creek Hydro Project is actually a devastating attack on Castle and Maroon creeks and adjacent wetlands that nourish and sustain a thriving complex of aquatic and terrestrial life. Far from being “non-consumptive,” the project would remove most of the water for several miles of both streams, run it through pipes to an artificial reservoir, and from there to a reincarnation of Aspen’s original hydro plant, which was shut down in 1958.
The “minimum streamflow” that would be left in the creeks is far below the amount needed for a healthy stream. Such “flatlining” prevents daily and seasonal water fluctuations. Except for spring runoff, what remains is little more than a trickle.
Maroon Creek water would never return to its source. Water from both streams would be dumped into Castle Creek near its confluence with the Roaring Fork. Aspenites who relied on residential zoning near the plant site are horrified by city plans to rezone their neighborhood for industrial uses.
Cottonwoods, aspen, and spruce trees line the banks of our streams, rainbow and brown trout linger in the pools, thriving on caddis flies, may flies, and other small aquatic organisms. Beaver ponds put to shame all human imitations. At least 85 percent of local wildlife species depend on streams and riparian habitat for their survival. Local bird counts support that assertion. By far the greatest variety of waterfowl and songbirds are found among the trees and willows that protect our streams and wetlands. Mammals, from the tiniest shrew to the most majestic elk, share the need for healthy riparian habitat.
So is there a way to have hydropower and a healthy stream? Yes, it’s possible. To save the streams in a fairly natural state, we would need to run the plant only when water is abundant, during spring runoff. It’s estimated this could still get us about 80 percent of the power we might get by running the as outlined in the city’s plan. The economics of that alternative would affect bondholders who relied on the city’s projections.
Someone must address that problem anyway, as the city now admits that its projections overestimated the amount of water by 30 percent, hardly a trivial error.
Some other things the city did, in a strange and rather secretive modus operandi, were as follows:
1) No new studies of actual streamflow were done. The city commissioned and relied on a study that was based on a much earlier study, itself recycled from an original study based on a single measurement of Maroon Creek, with plenty of extrapolations and fluff added then and now.
2) The vote for the hydropower bonds made no mention of any consequences to the streams.
3) The effects of global warming in reducing streamflow are totally ignored.
4) Though most of Castle and Maroon Creek are outside Aspen city limits, the city never included Pitkin County in the hydropower vote.
5) Landowners with homes adjacent to the streams were not informed about the project.
6) To avoid oversight by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) the city planned to ask FERC for an “emergency conduit exemption.” The alleged emergency is the possibility of a dam failure, which might flood the affordable housing project built by the city itself below the dam. There’s a double falsehood here: The implication that the flood, if one did occur, would actually endanger anyone, which the city itself has said couldn’t happen, and the failure to admit that any flood would be the result of water added by the new project.
7) If FERC accepts the story of the alleged “emergency,” it will grant a permanent exemption from future oversight. That is Mayor Mick Ireland’s goal. He stated in a council meeting that he wants to avoid a time-consuming Environmental Impact Study.
8) Items referred by citizens for City Council were not included in their packets. Other materials seemed more likely to bury than inform. Indexing could help a lot.