Aspen: Objectors plan to give city reservoir rights a “substantial haircut” during diligence filing process

Gravity dam
Gravity dam

From The Aspen Daily News (Curtis Wackerle):

Will proceed with diligence filing

Eliminating the city’s future possibility to build reservoirs that would inundate portions of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness would be irresponsible, given the uncertainties presented by climate change, Aspen City Council members said on Tuesday.

The board was unanimous in its direction to file a diligence application that would maintain the city’s water rights, first decreed in 1971, to build dams that would create the reservoirs on upper Maroon and Castle creeks.

“I have no more interest in building these dams than anyone else in this room,” councilman Art Daily said in the work session attended by about a dozen members of the public, most of whom wanted the city to abandon the water rights.

Yet Daily, like the rest of his council colleagues, said he would need more information about how the city could meet future water supply challenges without the dams, before he could agree to sign away a later council’s ability to pursue their development.

“I can’t in good conscious say we are going to drop these rights without knowing what the viable alternatives are,” Daily said, while acknowledging that a future where they would be necessary feels like an “almost unforeseeable possibility.”


Ann Mullins said she cannot predict what will happen in 50 years, and officials in the city utilities department have noted that the snow pack around Aspen could look very different under some climate projection scenarios.

“I think it’s the unpredictable part of climate change that is probably the scariest,” she said…

Council members were clear that the city will continue to study alternative water management strategies that will hopefully preclude the need to ever build the dams. This includes increasing conservation and pursuing other supply and storage initiatives.

Within the next year or two, for example, the city hopes to pump treated wastewater from the Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District up hill from the treatment plant near the Aspen Business Center to irrigate the municipal golf course. The city is also exploring developing water supply from deep-underground wells…

Opposition strategies

Numerous parties, including environmental groups, stream-side property owners and the U.S. Forest Service have indicated they will file statements of opposition to the diligence application should it go forward.

Will Roush, conservation director at Wilderness Workshop, made the case at Tuesday’s meeting that the Maroon Bells are too important a resource to keep the possibility of the dams alive. The regulatory hurdles the city would encounter if it ever tried to develop the reservoirs would be too extreme, and would require an exemption signed by the president to federal wilderness area rules, Roush has said previously.

Paul Noto, a local attorney who is working on behalf of the conservation group American Rivers, said that once the application is before a water court judge, the discussion will enter a new phase. A judge would approve any amendment to the water rights that was mutually agreeable to the city and opposing parties, Noto said.

That means changes to the size and placement of the dams and reservoirs would be on the table. Noto, who argued Tuesday that the city doesn’t need the water that would be stored behind these dams, said there’s a strong possibility that the size of the would-be reservoirs is in for a “substantial haircut” in the water-court process.

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