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Ruthie Brown, Blanca O’Leary and Don Sheeley: Guest opinion

Ruthie Brown, Blanca O'Leary and Don Sheeley
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

In 1885, DRC Brown Sr. organized the Aspen Water Co. and started the Consumers Light and Power Co., which operated Aspen’s hydroelectric plant, making Aspen the first city west of the Mississippi to provide power for lighting homes, businesses and streets, and to have a fire-protection and domestic water supply. What followed was a long list of world-renowned firsts – electric mining equipment, mining diversion tunnels, transmission lines, streetcars, fire hydrants and a municipal water supply. The city became a pioneer in the electrical industry. Engineers from around the world traveled to Aspen to study these successes and returned to Europe and Japan to build similar systems.

In the same spirit, in 2005 the city launched the Canary Initiative, a plan to have Aspen’s utility needs met by 100 percent renewable sources by 2015. Revitalizing the Castle Creek Hydroelectric Plant became an integral part of our energy portfolio. A bond to fund the project was passed by 72 percent of the voters in 2007, and the city began work as it was directed to do. Elections do matter.

The city of Aspen has the sixth-lowest residential energy rates for a municipal utility in the state due to a fact that a large percentage of the present energy portfolio is met by hydroelectric power from the Ruedi power plant. Yet the city’s Castle Creek project has come under fire for two reasons: the possible environmental impact of diverting water from Maroon and Castle creeks and the economic viability of the project.



The facts are that the environmental concerns are being addressed beyond all federal, state and Colorado Water Conservation Board regulatory requirements. The city, although not required to, changed its application from a Conduit Exemption Licensing (which was an entirely appropriate category for the project to be filed under) to a Minor Water Power Project License, as requested by the opposition. In collaboration with the county, top experts in the fields of hydrology, biology, hydroelectric energy and water rights were independently hired to review the work performed by the city and offer possible, subjective solutions to any concerns. They formulated an operational protocol – a plan based on science to determine the amount and timing of water to be diverted in a slow-start procedure. The plan will be managed under the direction of an independent team of experts. This would be the first of its kind in the country.

The city already has proven that it is willing to do what is right by diverting less water out of Castle and Maroon creeks for municipal use than what it has adjudicated rights to do. And since 1987, the city has been operating and managing the Maroon Creek Hydroelectric Plant with studies that show the stream has not been harmed.



In accordance with state regulations, the city has updated an emergency drainline out of our municipal water reservoir, as mandated by the state engineers. The work related to the emergency drainline should be removed from the budget for a more accurate figure on the hydroelectric costs. If the work related to the emergency drainline is removed from the budget, the project cost is $2.67 million over budget.

It would be more valuable to look at some truly great, successful projects that are an integral part of our community that were also over budget: closing off the streets to turn the core downtown area into a mall, the creation of the Rio Grande Trail, the Roaring Fork Transit system – all key assets of our community and all originally very contentious. Yes, the city has made mistakes, corrective measures have been taken with oversight by concerned residents, and now the project can move forward respectfully. The project is a long-term asset the city will own with a 75-year life span that is not figured into the opponents’ financial figures. Just as Ruedi hydroelectric has proven to be a good investment, Castle Creek should be looked at with a long-term vision.

To date the city has spent $6.81 million on the project with $3.75 million needed for completion. The final expenditure can be more accurately predicted as hard cost can now be closely calculated. The city based the original estimates on Front Range construction costs, not local building costs, an admitted mistake. The only unknowns at this point are the costs for legal actions driven by the opposition, which claims it is fighting wasteful government spending. Would the fiscally responsible action be to abandon a project that is two-thirds completed and chalk the $6.81 million loss up to powerful outside interests and still have local tax dollars be indebted to paying off the bond? Or should the community, representing the majority, support the city’s efforts, as we have directed them, and work together to complete this project in the most cost-effective and environmentally sensitive manner possible? Castle Creek hydroelectric can become a model for other projects across this country. We have the ability to do what is right for the environment while moving our business model toward renewable energy, not only to honor the Canary Initiative but also to support a legacy project done in the interest of our grandchildren.

The big-lie technique, to say something totally untrue but really loudly and repeatedly, is a favorite of notable extremists. The city has exposed the myths and fallacies of the project’s opponents. Should we be asking ourselves, Are those who can afford to spend the most money, and therefore spurring distrust and division, unduly influencing the future of Aspen? Or will we as a community build on the legacy of Aspen’s history – a society of visionaries that capitalized on innovations and industrial breakthroughs that set the stage for making Aspen the great place it is today.


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