Mark Harvey: Guest opinion

Mark Harvey
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

I salute the city of Aspen for some good environmental work in the past, from bus service to bike paths to building codes to the Canary Initiative. But having watched the Castle-Maroon creek hydro debate, read the hydrology report and spoken to many thoughtful people, I strongly question the city’s direction.

The intentions of the hydro project – reduced carbon emissions and energy cost – are admirable. But when you look at the numbers and consider the context, the project is much less attractive.

The history of hydropower, diversions and dam building in the U.S. is at once spectacular, sordid and tragic. Spectacular in the engineering and real accomplishments of power generation and irrigation, sordid in the back-room dealings and tragic in what happened to some once wild and beautiful rivers.

It’s a little ironic, then, that Aspen, a town that considers itself visionary and cutting edge, has plans for two local streams that hearken back to the go-go days of dam building.

The Castle Creek hydro center is not a dam per se, but it is a diversion and does many of the same things that a dam does. It alters the natural course of a river, changes streamflow and tinkers with a system several million years in the making.

I might support the project if the tradeoff were better. But if the goal is to reduce carbon emissions on the back of these two rivers, the numbers aren’t very impressive. The hydro project promises to reduce Aspen carbon emissions by 5,000 tons per year, which sounds like a lot. But put that number up next to total Aspen greenhouse gas emissions: 760,000 tons per year (Aspen Canary Initiative 2007 data). The hydro project would lop off 0.7 percent or 1⁄150 of total Aspen carbon emissions.

This whole notion that we’re going to change the world by knocking 5,000 tons of carbon per year off of total emissions is make-believe. As a comparable, private jets flying to Aspen emit close to 120,000 tons of CO2 per year, and commuter emissions of the traffic to and from Aspen is close to 120,000 tons of CO2 per year.

Maybe the best way to illustrate the absurdity of diverting creeks to save the atmosphere is to go to the base of Buttermilk on a cold December day around Christmas. If you close your eyes and listen, you’ll hear the confluence of our economy with our policy and ultimately our flawed ethos. You’ll hear thousands of cars commuting on Highway 82, large, private jets landing at Sardy Field and millions of gallons of water being pumped onto Buttermilk for artificial snowmaking. It just doesn’t have the sound of green. Next to that roar of commerce and carbon, it’s fair for citizens to wonder if we should ask our two not-so roaring creeks to carry the burden of our economy and our sins.

What I find most troubling about this debate is the cocksure confidence of the hydro proponents who say that drawing down the streams further is not going to harm them. They refer to the commissioned hydrology report and the city of Aspen’s stewardship. In some ways, the city of Aspen has been a good steward over the many years, but it never would have preserved the water, air or land as effectively without well-informed, smart and very active citizens challenging policy. Kind of like the ones challenging the hydro project despite the severe hostility coming from City Hall.

As for the hydrology report, it has some bland language about how healthy the rivers are now and how the hydro project won’t hurt the streams at all. I swear that reading the report you’d assume the diversion wouldn’t change a thing. It all looks benign until you dig into the numbers.

The hydro plant would take Castle Creek down to minimum or near minimum instream flow for the seven critical fall and winter months, reducing water flow as much as 60 percent from its natural state.

River science, while highly developed in some aspects, is still, pardon the pun, watery. The very principle of minimum instream flow is being vigorously challenged by scientists around the world. If Aspen can avoid taking the streams down to minimum, shouldn’t it? What sort of town with green pride shaves the riparian margins down to “minimum”?

The hydro project won’t kill Maroon or Castle creeks. But it’s eminently reasonable to assume that taking 30 percent more water from creeks during the important fall and winter breeding season will weaken and degrade two systems millions of years in the making. Study or no study.

Finally there’s the question of money. According to the city’s projections, the hydro project will begin to cash flow in 2028 if it is built by 2014. After 70 years, the project will save $20 million to $50 million, according to the city. That sounds like a lot of money, but is it really?

The city bases its projections on the cost of coal and the assumption coal will increase between 1 and 2 percent per year throughout the project’s lifespan. The Department of Energy predicts coal prices to be flat through 2035.

The city of Aspen website has hydro power listed at 8.6 cents per kilowatt-hour, wind at 9.7 cents per kilowatt-hour and solar at 21 cents per kilowatt-hour. So hydro looks economical under this scenario. But does anyone taking the slightest interest in renewables really think that wind and solar power aren’t going to come down radically? And there is so much more coming on line in terms of thermoelectrics for waste heat recovery, advances in ultracapacitors, industrial ballasts for lighting, tidal energy, biocatalysts for biomass energy, etc.

The total amount of money isn’t that significant over 70 years (best-case scenario: less than one half of the city’s annual budget. Worst case scenario: the price of two luxury homes in Aspen). It’s less significant still if you hold coal prices flat as the Department of Energy suggests.

The hydro project reminds me of those green wristbands the Aspen Skiing Co. used to hand out at the X Games. It’s a nice gesture, but when you see an X Gamer competing on a 200-horsepower snowmobile on artificial snow, wearing a little green wristband in support of the environment, you kind of go, “Whatever.”

In a time when the rest of America is tearing down its dams, restoring bruised and degraded rivers, pushing the cutting edge of technology to bring on modern renewables, isn’t Aspen a little out of step to be looking backward to the dam building days?

Castle and Maroon have served us heroically for more than 100 years through the ranching, mining, real estate and resort eras. But they remind me of a still-healthy horse towing a cart driven by an overly ambitious driver. Maybe it’s time we lighten their load, have some humility and look at what other American communities are doing to solve the very same problems – something to consider when voting on referendum 2C.