Aspen dams wrong policy, bad precedent

The election issue regarding Aspen’s wilderness area dams could not be simpler. The incumbents running for re-election in Aspen voted for Resolution 141-2016, which authorized their attorneys to make a water court application to continue water rights in the Castle and Maroon watersheds to build dams on private land, White River National Forest and federally designated Wilderness areas. The adopted resolution is the best evidence of incumbents Art Daily, Ann Mullins and Steve Skadron’s intent, and it states they “can and will develop” these dams.

A few non-attorneys have opined regarding different motivations of the incumbents, confusing politics with law and complicating what should be a simple policy issue: To dam, or not to dam. But perhaps the most concerning aspect of the various straw-man arguments that are being thrown out there to support the incumbents is the threat Aspen’s conditional dam rights pose to our valley.

When Aspen filed to maintain its dam rights, it received substantial opposition from private property owners, environmental groups and governmental entities, including Pitkin County and the federal government — for good reason. Dams in national forest and designated wilderness areas pose an extraordinary threat to the future of tourism in our valley, the health of streams and rivers, and wildness itself. And that threat not only continues but is amplified by Aspen’s insistence that it (as one non-attorney wrote) keep a “seat at the table” to protect us all from the Front Range water bogeyman.

Putting aside the fact that anyone at any time may file a water court application for storage rights up both Castle and Maroon creeks and the only way you get a “seat at the table” is by filing an actual objection, the “seat” some Aspen incumbents say they want to maintain via the dams actually weakens our ability as a community and valley to oppose development on federal lands and in wilderness areas.

Remember, Aspen’s dams are a specific approval to store water in a particular place far up Castle and Maroon creeks, conditioned on actual construction of dams within a reasonable period of time. Aspen’s senior water rights that supply drinking water are not the same as the conditional dam rights. If this case does not settle and goes to trial, Aspen will have to prove it can, will and legitimately needs to dam the Maroon Bells, including wilderness areas. If Aspen manages to prevail, then the precedent will be that it is permissible to use our public lands for other extra-jurisdictional, speculative water grabs, including even extractive industries.

If you can vote in the Aspen election, please save the rest of us from Aspen’s current lack of water leadership. There are many positive things Aspen could be pursuing if it were truly concerned about protecting Castle and Maroon creeks, including wild and scenic designation, recreational uses similar to Pitkin County’s kayak park, leasing water rights to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to increase minimum stream flow, moderating its own growth and water usage and working toward intergovernmental agreements with at least Pitkin County to ensure that the courtroom is the last place we go to deal with a shared public resource — water.

Marcella Larsen