Michael Lipkin: Guest opinion

Michael Lipkin
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

In 2005 the voters of Aspen supported a bond issue and committed to spend more than $11 million on green energy. This is an extraordinary opportunity. The city of Aspen is planning to spend those funds on a hydroelectric facility that will significantly dewater and degrade Castle and Maroon creeks.

Aspen’s greatest amenity is the natural splendor afforded by our unique and generous watersheds, rivers and riparian zones. That’s why we’re all here, that’s why our guests come, it’s the basis of our culture and it’s the basis our economy. Our rivers are our lifeblood and their stewardship our greatest responsibility.

That being said, I am increasingly convinced that city staff’s conclusions are questionable, that the integrity of the city’s process is flawed, that this is not remotely “smart green,” that this proposal is fiscally out-of-control, and that there is tremendous risk for Castle and Maroon creeks.

Risk for Castle and Maroon creeks – At the end of July the water flow in Castle Creek was 58.9 cubic feet per second (CFS). Current plans anticipate lowering the water level in Castle Creek by 25 CFS most of the year to as low as 13.8 CFS at times.

However, that could lower a 2.5-mile stretch of Castle Creek in midsummer to 33.8 CFS (a 43 percent reduction from what we saw in Castle Creek in midsummer) and would leave Castle Creek at a minimum stream flow of 13.8 CFS for at least five months in the fall and winter (75 percent less than the steam flow we saw in Castle Creek in midsummer). This simply doesn’t seem to equate to a healthy, sustainable river.

We are all committed to a sustainable and green future but first we must sustain our rivers. Man’s dominion over nature, while often well-intentioned, has been fraught with surprises and tremendous environmental costs.

City staff conclusions – City staff has predetermined that the city does not need an environmental impact statement (EIS) to dewater Castle and Maroon creeks. An EIS would undoubtedly raise significant environmental issues, and trade-offs will need to be analyzed. That’s the purpose of an EIS. It would be unconscionable to avoid it. Who in City Hall has made the decision that an EIS is unnecessary; what are their qualifications?

Process – The ballot item that was put in front of the voters that approved the bond never mentioned dewatering a 2.5-mile stretch of Castle Creek. It was a vote for green and sustainability. The current proposal has little to do with the bond issue that was approved. Even Councilman Torre stated at the last council meeting that he didn’t understand the issue when he voted back in 2005.

Only 15.6 percent of the possible voters voted on the bond issue. While a significant majority of those voters supported the bond issue, they accounted for less than 10 percent of Aspen voters, and the ballot item never mentioned dewatering a significant stretch of Castle Creek. This is hardly a mandate, and the current proposal is far too important not to be fully understood and supported by a majority of the community. Neither democracy nor community thrive in the dark. Despite the fact that most of the impacted portions of Castle and Maroon creeks are in the county, there has been no review process in the county.

Recently we have heard speculation that preserving our water rights is a justification for proceeding with this project. This sounds a bit like if we don’t trash our rivers, someone else will. If our water rights and rivers are truly in jeopardy, shouldn’t that be our primary concern? Shouldn’t we understand that issue first?

Fiscal responsibility – The leadership of Aspen and the staff in City Hall do many things extremely well. Their successes and commitment to our community cannot be questioned. However, in the area of fiscal investment and management some questionable decisions were made in recent years.

With respect to this proposed project, we have heard from city staff that there will be annual savings of $500,000. We have also heard that the savings will be closer to $30,000. Which is it? Do we really have the in-house skills to fully understand the fiscal impacts? Costs are growing. Do projected costs include the vast amounts of staff time spent on this project in recent years? We hear there is a 25-year payback. I’ve never heard of a responsible business venture that requires a 25-year payback.

And our environment doesn’t have 25 years to solve our energy problems. We need an immediate bang for our buck – for our $11 million-plus investment. We need some independent, professional economic analysis of this proposal. This may well be the most expensive per kilowatt hydro-project ever built.

Smart green – We have a bond issue that will ultimately cost this community in excess of $11 million. Hydro is probably a fine proposition for Castle and Maroon creeks about four months a year – during spring and early summer runoff. However, for the other eight months, either the rivers will be significantly compromised or the hydro-plant will operate at significantly diminished capacity. Given the vast change in our economic fortunes and the rapidly evolving technology and knowledge surrounding sustainable energy production and conservation, is this the best possible use of the proceeds of this bond?

Our town engineering staff wears many hats and assumes many responsibilities, but they are simply not qualified to tell us the best way, the greenest way, the most environmentally sound, visionary way to maximize the value of this extraordinary opportunity. However, there are experts who could. Before we go any further shouldn’t we consider all our options – especially options that will be more cost effective, have greater green impact, and won’t severely compromising our rivers? This is an extraordinary amount of money and an extraordinary green opportunity; unfortunately, this project isn’t green and it certainly isn’t smart green. This is trophy green.

Plans that could alter our rivers and riparian zones must be developed with complete community understanding of the possible impacts and costs, and with comprehensive, expert, peer review of all plans, implementation and maintenance. Our rivers and riparian zones have been here for millions of years. I trust City Council will not feel rushed to make a determination on their future.

Only one standard is acceptable – maintain 100 percent of the health and viability of Castle and Maroon creeks and their adjacent riparian zone 100 percent of the time. Anything less would be criminal.


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