Stacy Standley: Outside looking in on Aspen’s water dilemma
I read with continuing interest the recent article (“Aspen to buy land in Woody Creek for possible water storage,” July 19, The Aspen Times) about the continuing saga of the Aspen water rights storage decrees on Castle and Maroon creeks.
As then-mayor 44 years ago, I listened carefully to the city water staff, engineers and lawyers, and studied all of the water and energy data when I was mayor, and when I was at World Wildlife Fund in Europe, I have continued to follow the world and Aspen water debate and dialogue. I have a basic summary below of what I have learned over the past 44 years.
The concept of the storage of the two Maroon and Castle creeks water rights (and securing a change of point of storage for the two decrees) in the groundwater basins at the golf course, and possibly Cozy Point Ranch, and also possibly local abandoned mines are all sound theoretical concepts.
And there is even a possibility of doing the same type of groundwater storage up on McClain Flats or in Snowmass valley in gravel-filled groundwater basins, or even possibly down and up the Roaring Fork Valley — even as far downstream to Basalt or Carbondale or upstream of Aspen (and transfer the storage decrees by exchange) — also are all sound theoretical concepts.
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These concepts are used in California extensively and other states and countries.
The real proof is in the detailed and expensive on-site technical study of the soils and current water quality and chemistry of the parent earth or mine shafts.
There are many unintended consequences of opening up the earth and actually seeing and testing the soils and chemistry. One real such unintended consequence would be striking a gold or silver vein and then having to decide what to do, because that would be when greed and fear have a battle to the death.
Of course, even if technically feasible, the all-in, round-trip costs in dollars and environmental impact for actual pumping in and pumping out would need to be carefully calculated. For example, these alternatives would probably require more electrical energy than the proposed Castle Creek and Maroon Creek reservoirs, which actually would generate renewable energy, so the environmental costs would need to be compared as well in a before-and-after condition.
There are air-, land- and water-quality issues of the actual construction of each alternative, as well. For example, there would be local air- and water-quality issues during construction of the golf course site for but one example.
And of course, there also is another alternative based on the original decrees being for storage for municipal and hydroelectric power beneficial use, which could involve a very small, properly designed and unobtrusive diversion dam on Castle Creek (and a separate one on Maroon Creek) and then run a buried gravity 48-inch pipeline (or larger) down the mountain backbone from the Ashcroft (and also Maroon Lake) area about the 10 miles to the face of Aspen Mountain (and also Maroon Lake to Highlights Mountain) and then down to the Roaring Fork River and generate run-of-the-river low head hydroelectric power in the conduits and also high head hydroelectric power in the several 1,000 feet fall down at the terminus of each pipeline.
This would do two things: First, have about 1,400 acre feet of water in each pipeline at any given time for supplying the municipal water system and second, generate renewable energy for the city as a battery backup to local solar and wind renewable energy.
If properly environmentally designed, one or more of the systems described above could always be a two-way, parallel-pipeline conduit system used as a pump-back hydroelectric power system battery which also would double the storage in the pipelines for municipal water use and help Aspen Valley to be 100 percent renewable.
Obviously the all-in cash cost and environmental costs versus benefits of all of the possible alternatives would need to be carefully measured between all possible alternatives.
The city should have been doing this for years and not in desperation now as a way to protect the valuable water rights decrees.
The city of Aspen should always have enough physical supply of water as it sits on the top of the watershed, and should always be able to buy, lease, condemn, beg, borrow or steal enough legal water rights to match its physical needs. Of course, the water situation everywhere is becoming critical and a national security issue, so even Aspen may be faced with “ricochet” effects of water shortage: see the thorough analysis by WWF at https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/water-scarcity . (When I was director of the Living Planet Campaign at WWF in Switzerland this was one of our initiatives.)
The more pressing issue, however, is how does the city solve local/regional contributions to greenhouse gas emissions and have sufficient non-fossil fuel electrical energy from local renewable sources of solar and wind with sufficient backup of hydropower to use as a battery.
In the 1970s, Aspen created the Ruedi Reservoir hydroelectric power opportunity during my administration, and it was carried out by each subsequent administration. It is a success as a clean source of renewable energy, which can be repurposed to be a battery to back up locally generated renewable energy. We did this as a community because even in the 1970s we saw first-hand the adverse impact of coal-fired power plants up-wind which carried soot to blanket our ski slopes and absorb sun energy and cause the acceleration of snow melt.
We also built low head hydro power on T Lazy 7 and had others designed and ready to go on the other area streams.
All of this was done in carrying out the wise legacy of the early miners who built the first Aspen hydroelectric power systems.
I do not advocate any of these alternatives. Instead I use them to prompt thought and to ask for a thorough, wide-ranging review by highly competent, multi-disciplinary people to fully assess each and every remotely feasible alternative.
Aspen deserves the very best solution for the long term, because the risk of failure is simply unthinkable.
Stacy Standley is a former Aspen mayor. He was elected to the seat in May 1973.
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