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.

Aspen and Pitkin in IGA to study Roaring Fork river health

Map of the Roaring Fork River watershed via the Roaring Fork Conservancy
Map of the Roaring Fork River watershed via the Roaring Fork Conservancy

From The Aspen Times (Collin Szewczyk):

Pitkin County agreed to an intergovernmental agreement last week with the city of Aspen to expedite a study that aims to assess the health of the Roaring Fork River from its origin high atop Independence Pass down to where it meets Maroon Creek.

The $200,000 Upper Roaring Fork River management plan will be funded evenly by the two entities, and address feasible changes to improve the river ecosystem’s health including return flows to keep water levels up. The project will last roughly 15 months, ending in July 2017.

The project will focus on the river’s health; assess the community’s values and expectations; and look into river management objectives during periods of critical flow, a county memo noted. The goal of the study is to improve water quality, recreational opportunities, riparian habitat, and the overall health of the river and surrounding ecosystem.

John Ely, county attorney, said the study will look at water rights and development potential to “assess the ability to coordinate the competing interests to improve or enhance the health of the upper Roaring Fork.”

The study will cover river health from Independence Lake to just below Maroon Creek.

Ely said the county’s $100,000 will be contributed from both the Open Space and Trails and Healthy Rivers and Streams funds. Both of those entities’ boards are supportive of the project and related costs.

April Long, stormwater manager for the city and project manager for the endeavor, told the 
commissioners that a goal is to determine “realistic view of river health” for the community.

“The health of this section of the Roaring Fork has been on the city’s mind for quite a while now,” she said. “We’ve developed a pretty substantial stormwater management program to improve the runoff from the city areas and from private development before it gets into the river.”

Long added that other issues the river faces include degraded riparian areas and the lack of water during critical times of the year.

“In drought years, like we saw in 2002 and 2012, this section of the river can almost run dry,” she said. “It runs dry enough for you to walk across it without getting your feet wet. That has significant impacts for our aquatic life.”

Long added that the project will have benefits to the entire area, and not just within the city of Aspen. She said stakeholder opinions will be sought to determine what constitutes a healthy river.

Carbondale-based Lotic Hydrological, which recently completed a management plan on the Crystal River, has been hired as consultant for the project.

Long added that all prior river data will be utilized in the study.

“This isn’t a restudy of what is a healthy river, this is using all of the information that comes from different consultants [and county studies],” she said. “Given that everybody thinks there’s these different pieces that make a healthy river, what is actually realistic? What can we make change on? … We want the community to understand that these are the opportunities for a healthy river.”

Commissioner George Newman noted that the county doesn’t want to simply match the current state minimum standards for a healthy river.

“They’re probably woefully [inept] and not going to really address our vision in terms of what makes up or determines a healthy river or stream,” he said.

Long said that while the state’s minimum standards are not viewed as being too low, the community may have higher standards.

“It may be that our community believes we should be striving for more,” she said. “This would actually look at not just striving for more, but what can we actually get done. We may not even be able to meet the minimum in-stream flow at times, therefore what should we be striving for if we can’t get even to that? What is realistic that we can get to?”

The commissioners unanimously approved the emergency ordinance, 3-0.

“For a variety of different events beyond anybody’s control, we were kind of behind the eight ball in getting the project up and running,” Ely said of the ordinance. “If we were to wait and put this on a normal schedule, we’d be further behind.”

He added that even though the terms of the IGA haven’t yet been finalized, it was best to act now.

“At least we have immediate expression of commitment to the project,” Ely said.

The IGA will return before the BOCC for a public hearing on June 22.

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 to develop river management plan for upper Fork — The Aspen Times

Roaring Fork River in early July 2012 via Aspen Journalism
Roaring Fork River in early July 2012 via Aspen Journalism

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

The city of Aspen is seeking consultants to help it prepare a river management plan for the upper Roaring Fork River, which has been plagued in drought years by low flows as it winds through central Aspen.

“The city of Aspen plans to study the upper Roaring Fork River, from its headwaters to a point just below the confluence with Maroon Creek,” the city’s request for proposals, or RFP, says.

April Long, the city’s stormwater manager, said the development of a river management plan was one of the Aspen city council’s top ten goals in 2015. Long said she expects regional engineering firms specializing in water to put together teams of consultants and submit proposals to the city, which are due by Jan. 15.

“Since 2008, the city has focused on improving the quality of water discharged through its outfalls. The city now feels it is important to focus its attention on one of the other probable causes for impairment – inadequate flows during periods of drought,” the RFP says.

The city’s RFP also says it expects proposed consulting teams “to include members with experience and expertise in water resources engineering, river science, hydrology, water quality, stream geomorphology, Colorado water rights and water law, and group facilitation.”

Long said the city’s river management plan will be similar to the ‘”stream management plans” that are called for in the recently released Colorado Water Plan, and that ongoing work being done by the Colorado Water Trust for Pitkin County on ways to add more water to the river will be looked at when formulating the city’s river plan.

“Our ultimate goal for the project is to develop a plan that outlines operational, management, and physical options that improve the health of the river while respecting each stakeholder’s rights and interests,” the city’s RFP says.

The Roaring Fork River flows into the city’s boundaries at Stillwater Drive east of downtown Aspen.

The stretch of the river between there and the confluence with Castle Creek has been known to drop below 32 cubic feet per second, which the Colorado Water Conservation Board considers the minimum amount of water necessary to protect the river’s environment “to a reasonable degree.”

“In the early 2000s several studies investigated the health of the Roaring Fork River and reported a severely degraded or impaired stretch of river within the city,” the RFP says. “The instream flow determined for this stretch in the 1970s is 32 cubic feet per second. During the droughts of 2002 and 2012, the river in this stretch dropped to only 5 cfs – only 15 percent of the instream flow.”

One big factor in the amount of water in the Roaring Fork River through Aspen is the Salvation Ditch, an irrigation ditch that diverts water from the river at Stillwater Drive.

The ditch has a senior 1902 water right that allows up to 58 cfs of water to be diverted and sent across lower Red Mountain to Woody Creek.

During the drought of 2012 there were days when there was more water flowing down the Salvation Ditch than was flowing down the Roaring Fork as it winds through town.

For example, according to a study done by S.K. Mason Environmental LLC, on July 27, 2012 there was 17.4 cfs flowing in the Salvation Ditch and 7.6 cfs of water flowing down the Fork below the ditch.

However, Tom Moore, the president of the Salvation Ditch Company, said the shareholders who own land along the ditch company also need the water in dry years, they have made significant investments in the water system, and they are concerned about weakening their water right by not diverting the water.

He also pointed out that the Salvation Ditch water right is senior to the 1930s era water rights held by the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., which diverts water under Independence Pass. As such, the Salvation Ditch plays a role in keeping water in the Roaring Fork River, he said.

The city’s Long said talking with the Salvation Ditch Co. will be an important part of the river management plan, which is why the city is seeking proposals that include consultants with an expertise in working with various stakeholders.

The city’s RFP says “we hope that by determining valuable attributes of the river, we can work together as a community to lessen impairment and improve water quality, river health, ecological health, recreational opportunities, and riparian habitat in ways that closer meet the community’s goals.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is covering rivers and water in collaboration with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and The Aspen Times. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

A view of the Salvation Ditch diversion dam and head gate, just of off Stillwater Drive, east of Aspen. Smith / Aspen Journalism
A view of the Salvation Ditch diversion dam and head gate, just of off Stillwater Drive, east of Aspen. Smith / Aspen Journalism

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.

The City of Aspen filed a microhydro app yesterday with FERC on Maroon Creek

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