City of Aspen to discuss possible dams on Castle and Maroon creeks

A rendering from Wilderness Workshop of a potential Maroon Creek Reservoir, which would hold 4,567 acre-feet of water behind a 155-foot-tall dam. The rendering was prepared by a professional hydrologist and is based on plans submitted to the state by the city.
A rendering from Wilderness Workshop of a potential Maroon Creek Reservoir, which would hold 4,567 acre-feet of water behind a 155-foot-tall dam. The rendering was prepared by a professional hydrologist and is based on plans submitted to the state by the city.

By Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

ASPEN – Officials at the city of Aspen intend to hold at least one public meeting this summer to discuss the conditional water rights it holds that are tied to potential dams on upper Castle and Maroon creeks.

The city’s next diligence filing for its conditional water rights for the two dams and reservoirs is due in Division 5 water court in Glenwood Springs by Oct. 31. It’s highly unusual in Colorado for a city, or any other entity, to hold a public meeting on a pending diligence filing.

David Hornbacher, city of Aspen director of utilities and environmental initiatives, said that while holding a public meeting is indeed “different,” he is acting at the direction of the city council.

“These are important questions,” he said. “And it’s very much about looking into the future and how do we ensure Aspen has what it needs to continue to thrive and be the place that it is, and what’s the best approach.”

Paul Noto, a water attorney with Patrick, Miller and Noto, which specializes in water law and has represented many clients in the Roaring Fork River watershed, said it was “very unusual” for a city to hold a public hearing about a pending diligence filing.

“I’ve never heard of it, although that’s not to say it’s never occurred,” Noto said. “I’ve just never heard of it.”

 A rendering from Wilderness Workshop showing the potential Castle Creek Reservoir. The rendering was developed by a professional hydrologist and i sbased on engineering plans filed by the city.
A rendering from Wilderness Workshop showing the potential Castle Creek Reservoir. The rendering was developed by a professional hydrologist and i sbased on engineering plans filed by the city.

15-story dams?

If built as currently described by the city’s plans, which were first presented to a water court judge in 1965, the Maroon Creek reservoir would store 4,567 acre-feet of water behind a 155-foot-tall dam just below the confluence of East Maroon and West Maroon creeks.

While only about a third of the size of Paonia Reservoir, which can hold 15,553 acre-feet when full, a Maroon Creek reservoir would still cover 85 acres of U.S. Forest Service land about a mile-and-a-half below Maroon Lake.

It would also inundate portions of both the East Maroon Creek and West Maroon Creek trails in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

The Castle Creek reservoir would hold 9,062 acre-feet of water behind a 170-foot-tall dam located about two miles below the historic town site of Ashcroft.

It would inundate 120 acres of mostly private land between Fall Creek and Sandy Creek and flood a small piece of Forest Service land within the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

Both reservoirs would be located in Pitkin County.

Since 1965, the city has told the state eight different times it intends to build two large dams in pristine locations in the upper Castle and Maroon creek valleys, and it is on the record that the city intends to file a diligence application this fall. In its September 2009 diligence filing the city told the water court “it has steadily applied efforts to complete” the reservoirs “in a reasonably expedient and efficient manner.”

A court official, known as a water referee, agreed.

“To date, the city of Aspen has not needed to construct the storage structures as it has devoted considerable resources to reducing per capita water consumption,” the unnamed referee wrote. (Please see related story).

A rendering from Wilderness Workshop showing how a Castle Creek Reservoir might look on a seasonal basis after water has been drawn done to meet downstream needs.
A rendering from Wilderness Workshop showing how a Castle Creek Reservoir might look on a seasonal basis after water has been drawn done to meet downstream needs.

Private and public meetings

Hornbacher said this week he will hold one private meeting with stakeholders in early July about the dams and at least one public meeting in July or early August, “depending on the level of public interest.”

After presenting information about the water rights and taking questions and suggestions at the meetings, Hornbacher said he would report back to the council in a work session in August or September to get its direction by the Oct. 31 filing deadline.

He said council could direct staff to proceed with the diligence filing and try and keep the water rights on the books for another six years.

Or it could direct staff not to file, or to file a modified application.

Hornbacher said a modified application could mean filing on one dam and reservoir, but not both, or it could mean filing on both reservoirs but changing their size and shape.

It’s not unheard of for entities to walk away from conditional water rights. The Colorado River District made the decision to abandon rights for two large dams on the Crystal River in 2013. And over the last five years, the district has stepped away from a number of other conditional water rights.

Among the stakeholders Hornbacher plans to invite to a private meeting are Wilderness Workshop, Roaring Fork Conservancy, U.S. Forest Service, and Pitkin County.

Wilderness Workshop first reported the city’s decision to hold public hearings in a newsletter it sent to members on June 1. The headline of the article read, “Potential dams on Maroon and Castle creeks still on the books” and a subhead read, “A diligence filing this fall would keep them alive; WW says, ‘No way!’”

The city of Aspen intends to hold at least one public meeting on the conditional water rights it holds for two large dams, one on upper Castle Creek and one on upper Maroon Creek, shown here in this 2012 file photo, with the Maroon Bells visible in the background. The dam on Maroon Creek would be 155-feet-tall and store 4,567 acre-feet of water.
The city of Aspen intends to hold at least one public meeting on the conditional water rights it holds for two large dams, one on upper Castle Creek and one on upper Maroon Creek, shown here in this 2012 file photo, with the Maroon Bells visible in the background. The dam on Maroon Creek would be 155-feet-tall and store 4,567 acre-feet of water.

Proving diligence

Typically, owners of conditional water rights need to demonstrate to the court they meet the “can and will” doctrine – that they can build the proposed water supply project and that they will build it.

The city may also need to meet standards developing in the wake of a Colorado Supreme Court decision in Pagosa Area Water & Sanitation Dist. v. Trout Unlimited.

Alan Martellaro, the Division 5 engineer based in Glenwood Springs, told the city in May, in response to a separate conditional water rights application it filed, that “the applicant [the city] must demonstrate that speculation is overcome per the criteria in ‘Pagosa.’”

“The applicant must demonstrate the proposed appropriation can and will be diverted and put to beneficial use for each of the proposed uses: a) within a reasonable planning period; b) using normal population growth assumptions; and c) the amount claimed is necessary and unappropriated water is available,” Martellaro wrote.

In past filings, the city has left the state with the distinct impression that it intends to build the two reservoirs, especially in the face of the uncertainty of climate change. But it has also left citizens with another impression – that it is simply protecting its water rights, not warming up bulldozers in view of the Bells.

Noto, the Aspen water attorney, says “you can’t have it both ways.”

“It’s a really important point,” Noto said. “You either are moving forward toward completing your project, which is essentially the standard for keeping your water right, or you’re not. And there’s no in-between.”

Noto has represented clients in the past who successfully opposed the city’s proposed hydropower plant on Castle Creek, but said he is not currently representing a client regarding the city’s pending diligence filing.

As such, Noto was willing to talk on the record in the role of citizen and as an experienced local water attorney.

He said he doesn’t agree with the city’s reasoning that a hotter future may increase the need for the reservoirs.

“I don’t buy it,” he said. “To use climate change as a pretext for damming the Maroon Bells and damming upper Castle Creek is not appropriate.”

The city of Aspen recently completed a raw water availability study that concluded that Aspen has sufficient water to meet future municipal demands, but in one of out of 20 years it might have trouble meeting its goal of keeping instream flows of at least 14 cfs in Maroon Creek and 13.3 cfs in Castle Creek.

The language in the water availability study leaves open the door for the city to suggest that building dams on the upper sections of the creeks could help meet its instream flow goals on the lower sections of the creeks.

A map produced by Pitkin County from a map on file with the state of the city of Aspen's proposed Maroon Creek Reservoir, located just below Maroon Creek Lake, shown to the left as the smaller of the two bodies of water. The map was commissioned by Aspen Journalism and confirmed in 2012 as accurate by city officials.
A map produced by Pitkin County from a map on file with the state of the city of Aspen's proposed Maroon Creek Reservoir, located just below Maroon Creek Lake, shown to the left as the smaller of the two bodies of water. The map was commissioned by Aspen Journalism and confirmed in 2012 as accurate by city officials.

Good planning?

“What we’re talking about is trade-offs,” Noto said. “Is maintaining an instream flow worth building large dams at the Maroon Bells and upper Castle Creek? Absolutely not. There are other ways that the city could meet the instream flow such as eliminating some irrigation during times of shortage. There are better ways to meet your goals than building big dams. And the people aren’t going to stand for it.”

Noto was asked if he could see a reason why the city should hold on to its conditional water rights on Castle and Maroon creeks.

“I don’t see it,” he said. “I can’t, for the life of me, envision a scenario where it would be good planning or good policy to dam Maroon Bells and to dam upper Castle Creek.”

Wilderness Workshop told its members in its June newsletter that it would be working “to convince the city to abandon the rights to these reservoirs (and we’ll need your help).”

American Rivers is also on the record as opposing the city’s plans to build dams and reservoirs.

“We are absolutely and always will be opposed to new reservoirs on Castle and Maroon creeks,” said Matt Rice, director of the Colorado River Basin Program for American Rivers. “They contradict the values of Aspen and the state of Colorado — values we will fight for.”

American Rivers is a national nonprofit dedicated to river restoration and protection, which fought vigorously against the city of Aspen’s Castle Creek hydro power plant.

Rice said whether or not American Rivers will oppose the city in water court if it does decide to file a diligence application is a strategic decision to be made down the road.

“We think the city’s willingness to have an open, transparent process with citizens is a good thing, if indeed that’s what it is,” Rice said. “There needs to be a sincere and open examination of these projects and what people would be giving up if they were developed.”

Editor’s note:
Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Daily News, Coyote Gulch are collaborating on the coverage of rivers and water. The Daily News published this story on Monday, June 20, 2016.

City water supply could be tested by climate change — The Aspen Daily News

Smuggler Mine back in the day via GregRulon.com
Smuggler Mine back in the day via GregRulon.com

From The Aspen Daily News (Curtis Wackerle):

If climate change renders the Western Slope warmer and drier, and if historic growth rates keep up, then Aspen’s water utility could have trouble meeting consumer demand without depleting minimum in-stream flows in Castle and Maroon creeks over the next 50 years.

Aspen City Council on Monday heard a presentation from consultants hired to evaluate the adequacy of the municipal water supply. Wilson Water Group put together a report forecasting demand and available supply over a 50-year outlook, and found that in the worst-case climate change scenario, the city could miss in-stream flow targets on Castle and Maroon creeks by between 4 and 9 cubic feet per second during the “irrigation months” of June through September.

The city has committed to a 13 cfs minimum flow in Castle Creek, and 14 cfs in Maroon. Both creeks are tapped to feed municipal needs through diversion structures that send water to Thomas Reservoir, a holding bay for the city’s treatment plant.

Even if the worst-case scenario projections come to pass in terms of climate change and population growth — demands on the city’s water system historically have risen by about 1.2 percent a year, according to special projects utilities engineer Phil Overeynder — the city has other ways to shore up its water supply.

One project that has been on the drawing board for years would pump treated wastewater uphill from the sanitation plant to irrigate the city’s golf course.

The city also controls three wells in town drawing from the local aquifer. If irrigation for city parks increasingly relied on those wells, then more water could be left in Castle and Maroon creeks.

Combined with more water conservation, or restrictions in drought years, depletion of in-stream flows could be avoided, consultants report.

City council agreed to adopt the 2016 Water Supply Availability Study, and continue monitoring hydrologic conditions.

Council also heard a presentation on Monday from another consultant that analyzed threats to the water supply and water quality. Given that Aspen’s water originates in high mountain valleys, wildfire poses perhaps the most imminent and hazardous threat. A bad fire in the Castle or Maroon watersheds could be detrimental to water quality in those streams, and subsequent mudslides could also cause problems.

There is also the abandoned Pitkin Iron Mine above Ashcroft that drains into Copper Creek, a Castle Creek tributary.

The Colorado Rural Water Association conducted a study for the city assessing the best ways to mitigate these threats.

Creating a buffer zone against wildfire near the diversion structures on Castle and Maroon creeks, while continuing to develop plans to limit wildfire debris flow into Thomas Reservoir, were among the study’s top recommendations.

More work to control erosion at the Pitkin Iron Mine site was also recommended. However, the consultant noted that the Pitkin Iron Mine did not make the list of the state’s 200 most pressing mine cleanup needs.

Aspen Times Weekly: Could a mine-waste spill happen here?

Smuggler Mine back in the day via GregRulon.com
Smuggler Mine back in the day via GregRulon.com

From The Aspen Times Weekly (Scott Condon):

Pitkin County has between 600 and 800 mine features, including multiple adits into the same mine, according to an estimate by the Colorado state government. And as Cooper’s experience shows, there are Aspen mines that are filled with water — but just because there’s water, that doesn’t mean it’s contaminated water.

Still, that hefty inventory of adits and shafts makes it reasonable to wonder if something similar to the discharge of 3 million gallons of toxic water from the Gold King Mine near Silverton into the Animas River earlier this month could happen in Aspen (see story, page 33).

State and federal officials as well as miners with street credibility will never say never, but a similar disaster in Pitkin County is unlikely, in large part because of geology, they agreed.

Aspen Mountain’s mines tended to be internally drained to the water table, so “there is generally no significant surface drainage discharges associated with the underground workings,” said Bruce Stover, an official with the Colorado Inactive Mine Reclamation Program. That means there is a “very limited possibility” of underground impoundments of water being formed, he said.

Mines in the San Juan Mountains and other parts of the state have water above the surface. Toxic water was intentionally captured inside the Gold King Mine. It breached when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency undertook a reclamation effort.

Aspen miners tended to encounter water below the level of the water table and Roaring Fork River, said Jay Parker, a partner in the Compromise Mine on Aspen Mountain and a miner and tour guide at the Smuggler Mine.

The water emerging from Aspen’s mines hasn’t been found to be acidic or laced with heavy metals in any testing to date. In one of Aspen’s few hard-rock mine reclamation projects, water in Castle Creek tested similarly above and below where the Hope Mine discharged, according to Forest Service records.

Parker said water draining from the Compromise Mine on Smuggler Mountain feeds ponds where fish thrive and ducks gather.

Local Mine reclamation aimed at safety

Many of Pitkin County’s mines have collapsed, either naturally or by public agencies for safety reasons.

“Our records show we have safeguarded approximately 90 hazardous, non-coal openings in Pitkin County, many of them on Aspen Mountain,” said Stover. Numerous closures have also been completed on coalmines in the Coal Basin and Thompson Creek areas.

The Forest Service typically performs safety closures on three or four mines per year, according to Greg Rosenmerkel, engineering, minerals and fleet staff officer on the White River National Forest. “There are hundreds of mines across the forest.”

The focus of both the Forest Service and the Inactive Mine Reclamation Program is to prevent people from entering an unsafe situation. Old mining timbers have often rotted, making interior travel perilous. Air deep underground can be toxic without proper ventilation.

“It’s almost an attractive nuisance,” Rosenmerkel said of the old mines.

A recent closure was completed earlier this summer at three mines in the high ground beyond Crystal. The typical closure costs $200,000, though no two projects are the same, he said.

Both the Forest Service and Inactive Mine Reclamation Program are focused on finding mines that pose a physical hazard, such as ones located in a ski area or adjacent to a popular hiking trail, and safe-guarding them.

No toxic water impounded

If Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management officials suspect environmental issues, the state Water Quality Control Division is mobilized to test for acidity or metals. If a problem is found, the Inactive Mine Reclamation Program figures out how to solve the problem. If an environmental problem is suspected with a mine on private lands, the Forest Service might be involved if it affects public lands, Rosenmerkel said.

The Hope Mine in Castle Creek Valley warranted remediation while the Ruby Mine in Lincoln Creek Valley has raised concerns but hasn’t been found in need of monitoring (see related stories), according to officials.

Rosenmerkel said there is no situation in the Aspen-Ranger District where water as toxic as that in the Gold King Mine is being impounded.

The Roaring Fork Conservancy, a Basalt-based nonprofit focused on water quality and quantity issues in the valley, doesn’t specifically test to see how water coming from mines affects rivers and streams in the basin.

“Outside of Ruby, I don’t know if we have a big enough problem or big enough source,” said Rick Lofaro, the conservancy’s executive director.

Aspen utilities official favors new dams on local streams — Aspen Journalism

Gravity dam
Gravity dam

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

A top utility official with the city of Aspen voiced his support last week for building “small reservoirs” on a number of streams in the Roaring Fork River watershed, including on Hunter, Castle, Maroon, and Avalanche creeks.

“Small reservoirs would improve stream flow on tributaries,” said Mike McDill, deputy director of utilities for the city of Aspen, referring to the ability to store water in the spring and release it later during low-flow periods.

“A small reservoir on Castle Creek would improve the stream health on Castle Creek and also help our drinking water reserves,” McDill said. “I think there may also be benefits to Hunter Creek, Maroon Creek and maybe even Avalanche Creek. All of our tributaries could use that kind of small reservoir and stream-flow calming.”

Today, the city of Aspen owns two diversion dams, one on lower Castle Creek next to Dick Butera’s estate, and one on lower Maroon Creek near the T-Lazy Ranch. Both of the dams are river wide and completely block fish passage, but they do not form reservoirs of water behind them.

McDill also said the city fully intends to keep its options open for two large dams on both upper Castle and Maroon creeks, which he referred to as “serious water storage reservoirs.”

McDill’s remarks were made during a public meeting of the Roaring Fork Watershed Collaborative, held at the Third Street Center in Carbondale.

At the watershed meeting, consulting engineers from SGM were facilitating a group-planning exercise in an effort to determine the top three water projects in the Roaring Fork River basin for inclusion in the forthcoming statewide Colorado Water Plan.

The effort did not result in a definitive shortlist of water projects, and no one else at the meeting spoke in favor of Aspen building new dams.

The Colorado River Basin Roundtable is slated to finalize a water project list for the entire Colorado River basin March 23.

“Serious water reservoirs”

McDill represents the city of Aspen on the Colorado Roundtable, and over the past year has consistently said the city needs to develop or acquire water storage.

“The city of Aspen, most of the cities in the region, none of them have any storage,” McDill said. “Their storage is snowpack, as is ours. I can tell you that that works great in the spring, works great through the summer. But believe it or not, our times of greatest concern are January, February, March, because Castle Creek, where we take most of water, is so low that we have to send a crew out almost every morning to chip the ice off of our intake bars, because the development of an inch or so of ice is enough to block our intake.”

McDill said the city, in addition to exploring new storage options, also is developing new water-supply projects, such as a reclaimed-water system and a deep-water well originally drilled as part of a geothermal energy project.

“The reason that we are doing that and the reclaimed water system,” McDill said, “is they are all really part of this idea of continuing due diligence to try to investigate every other possible way to provide the security for our drinking water system before we go to the point of building serious water storage reservoirs.

“We have reservoir storage rights on Maroon Creek and Castle Creek,” McDill added. “We know that’s going to be a really hard sell whenever we would start to do that, so before we even try, we’re going to look at every other alternative.”

The city holds conditional water rights for dams and reservoirs on both upper Castle and Maroon creeks.

The Maroon Creek reservoir would store 4,567 acre-feet of water behind a 155-foot-tall dam just below the confluence of East Maroon and West Maroon creeks, about a mile-and-half from Maroon Lake.

The Castle Creek reservoir would hold 9,062 acre-feet of water behind a 170-foot-tall dam located about two miles below the historic town site of Ashcroft.

The city’s conditional water rights for the Castle and Maroon creek reservoirs are officially on the state’s books through 2016, when the city will need to convince the state water court it is diligently making progress toward building the dams.

(Please see related stories: “Aspen’s Ruedi water buy may bolster prospect for new dams on Castle and Maroon creeks” and “City maintains rights for dams on Castle and Maroon creeks“)

Small and large reservoirs

When McDill was asked at Thursday’s meeting what his definition of a “small dam” is, he pointed to the city’s Leonard Thomas Reservoir at the city’s water treatment plant, which he said holds 14 acre feet of water. The dam at the reservoir is 19 feet tall.

“But it’s a good question,” McDill then said. “What’s a large reservoir?”

He went on to say that the conditional water rights for the Maroon and Castle creek reservoirs were “in the neighborhood of 10,000 acre-feet,” and that the other “smaller” reservoirs under discussion were in the “4,000 to 5,000 to 6,000” acre-foot range.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times on coverage of rivers and waters. The Times published this story on Friday, March 13, 2015.

More Roaring Fork River watershed coverage here.

On Monday the City of Aspen officially ended its pursuit of a hydroelectric generation plant on Castle Creek — Aspen Journalism

The City of Aspen councilors decide to let FERC hydropower application expire in March


From The Aspen Times (Karl Herchenroeder):

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted Aspen its first three-year preliminary permit for a 1,175-kilowatt hydropower plant on lower Castle Creek in November 2008 and a second three-year permit in March 2012.

City Attorney Jim True recommended allowing the permit to expire on March 1, which would officially put the controversial Castle Creek Energy Center on ice, for now. City officials did, however, agree to continue exploring micro-hydro projects on Castle and Maroon creeks, which True said would involve protection of city water rights.

“We will update you on those issues,” True told the council, adding that there will be more detailed analysis later. “We do believe there are additional protections.”

Will Dolan, the city’s utilities project coordinator, said that if the city were able to install low-head hydro on Maroon Creek, it would allow it to run more water through the existing Maroon Creek hydroplant and “optimize production.” Councilwoman Ann Mullins asked if it will affect streamflows.

“It wouldn’t affect the flow regimes necessarily,” Dolan said. “It would allow us to more fully utilize our water rights, but it wouldn’t create any additional diversion from the stream.”

“These are issues we want to bring back in greater detail,” True said, adding that consultation with federal and city water attorneys is needed.

Councilman Adam Frisch said he believes there is broad community support to explore micro-hydro and called the plan that True laid out “a great step forward.” None of the council members offered objections to True’s recommendation.

“I agree to let it expire, continue the investigation of micro-hydro and have a universal statement on protecting water rights,” Councilman Dwayne Romero said.

In March, the city filed a progress report saying it was still working on the Castle Creek project, despite a November 2012 advisory vote where 51 percent of city voters said the city should stop doing so.

However, in June, the city settled a lawsuit over its water rights for the proposed hydroplant. Both the settlement and a subsequent city council resolution said the city “will not be pursuing or seeking to complete the Castle Creek Energy Center hydroelectric project at this time.”

More hydroelectric/hydropower coverage here and here.

Aspen faces deadlines on federal hydro permit — Aspen Journalism

Aspen
Aspen

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith) via The Aspen Times:

The Aspen City Council is expected Jan. 12 to face decisions about its federal permit for a hydropower plant on Castle Creek, as the permit expires Feb. 28 and there are deadlines Jan. 29 and March 1 if the city wants to keep the permit alive.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted Aspen its first three-year preliminary permit for a 1,175-kilowatt hydropower plant on lower Castle Creek in November 2008, and its second three-year permit in March 2012.

In the past nine months, the city’s communication with the commission has signaled varying degrees of commitment for the project.

In March, the city filed a progress report saying it was still working on the project, despite a November 2012 advisory vote where 51 percent of city voters said the city should stop doing so.

“The Aspen City Council has not abandoned the project … ” the city told the agency in March. “The project remains a viable project at this juncture, one which the city continues to study and to defend the water rights upon which its plans are based.”

In June, however, the city settled a lawsuit over its water rights for the proposed hydropower plant. Both the settlement and a subsequent City Council resolution said the city “will not be pursuing or seeking to complete the Castle Creek Energy Center hydroelectric project at this time.”

Instead, the city declared it was going to “pursue other renewable energy projects, including microhydroelectic installations at existing city-owned or controlled facilities.”

Those facilities are two diversion dams located several miles up Castle and Maroon creeks, which are currently used to divert water to the city’s water treatment plant.

The city in June sent FERC a copy of the resolution and the settlement agreement, and feels it gave adequate notice to the commission that its position on the project had evolved to embrace microhydro, Aspen City Attorney Jim True said.

But in September, the city sent FERC a progress report that seemed to suggest the city was leaving the door open for the plant on lower Castle Creek.

“In the event the City Council decides to proceed with the Castle Creek Energy Center project as a chosen alternative, the city will move forward as appropriate in accordance with applicable statues and regulations,” the city stated.

On Dec. 23, True said that sentence should not be taken to mean the city is still pursuing the original project.

Micro-hydroelectric plant
Micro-hydroelectric plant

“The city intends to pursue microhydro and we’ve made that clear to FERC,” True said. “We’re not looking at the Castle Creek Energy Center any more, at all.”

But if the city is not pursuing the lower Castle Creek project and instead plans to study microhydro projects, should it ask FERC to extend or renew its existing preliminary permit?

That’s one question the City Council is facing Jan. 12.

The city does have the right to apply for a third “successive” preliminary permit, but Shana Murray, who manages hydro projects at FERC, said it would be difficult.

“We will take a very hard look at what they have done to develop a license application over the last six years.”

Karl Kumli, an attorney working for the city on its federal permit, was more upbeat about the chances of extending the city’s current permit, even though the city’s focus has shifted.

“A preliminary permit, by its very nature, has some flexibility associated with it because you are studying options,” Kumli said.

Murray said if Aspen did want to file for a third permit, it would be expected to do so on March 1, the day after its current permit expires Feb. 28.

That is because one purpose of a preliminary permit is to secure the location of a proposed hydropower plant, so most applicants don’t leave a gap of even one day.

The city also has the option, with the passage of the federal Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act of 2013, to apply for a two-year extension to its current permit.

Murray said so far two-year extensions on second permits are getting about the same level of scrutiny at FERC as applications for a third permit.

However, if the city wants to go that route, it would need to notify FERC officials 30 days before the existing permit expires Feb. 28, which in this case is Jan. 29.

Murray wouldn’t speculate on how the agency would respond if the city applies to extend or renew its permit.

The city also has the option of simply letting its current permit expire and then applying for a new permit, or permits, for its proposed microhydro projects.

And in June, the city signaled to FERC it might go that route, although it did not discuss letting its current permit expire.

“In the near future, the city anticipates filing a separate preliminary permit or permits for such microhydro sites, which will be separate and different projects from the Castle Creek Energy Center,” the city said in its update.

Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

More hydroelectric/hydropower coverage here.