Ten parties file statements of opposition in Maroon Creek and Castle Creek reservoir cases

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Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

A view of the Maroon Bells from just below the confluence of East Maroon and West Maroon creeks, where the City of Aspen has told the state of Colorado it intends - at some point - to build a 155-foot-tall dam. The resulting reservoir would back up 4,567 acre-feet of water and cover 80 acres of USFS land, including a portion of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness

ASPEN – The United States of America and Pitkin County are among the 10 parties that have filed statements of opposition in two conditional water rights cases being pursued by the city of Aspen in water court for Maroon Creek Reservoir and Castle Creek Reservoir.

In addition to the two governments, four environmental organizations and four private-property owners filed statements in the cases by the Dec. 31 deadline.

Such statements of opposition are typically short and generic, and simply give notice of formal entry into a case. But the statements filed by the U.S. and Pitkin County offer some insight into their concerns about the city’s water rights applications.

Attorneys at the U.S. Justice Department acting on behalf of the U.S. Forest Service told the court the city “cannot show that it can and will” complete the two reservoirs “within a reasonable time” because both potential reservoirs would flood portions of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

And Pitkin County told the court the city “appears to be speculating with no reasonable demonstration of need” for the reservoirs.

The city filed two applications in Division 5 water court in Glenwood Springs on Oct. 31, one for Maroon Creek Reservoir (16CW3128) and one for Castle Creek Reservoir (16CW3129). Aspen is seeking to extend the conditional water storage rights for another six years. The rights were appropriated in 1965 and adjudicated in 1971.

The city has filed diligence applications for the reservoirs eight prior times, in 1972, 1977, 1981, 1985, 1989, 1995, 2002 and 2009, and each time has been awarded a new diligence decree for the conditional rights.

The conditional rights, as currently decreed, cannot be made absolute unless the city builds a dam 155 feet tall and an estimated 1,280 feet wide across Maroon Creek, within view of the Maroon Bells, and a dam 170 feet tall and an estimated 1,220 feet wide across upper Castle Creek.

The Maroon Creek Reservoir would hold 4,567 acre-feet of water and flood 85 acres of land, and the Castle Creek Reservoir would hold 9,062 acre-feet of water and flood 120 acres of land. Water in both reservoirs would flood some land within the wilderness boundary.

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.

Source: Pitkin County for Aspen Journalism

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.

The federal case

The two statements of opposition from the federal government are nearly identical, save for the name of the potential reservoirs in each case. Both begin by saying the reservoir would require a Forest Service permit, and then they raise the wilderness issue.

“Maroon Creek Reservoir would impound water that would inundate lands within the Maroon Bells–Snowmass Wilderness Area,” the statement in the Maroon Creek case said. “Development of Maroon Creek Reservoir is not authorized by [federal law] or any existing special use permit or land use authorization.

“Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, the U.S. Forest Service cannot authorize any new development of conditional water rights, including the conditional water right requested in Case No. 16CW3128 in the Maroon Bells–Snowmass Wilderness Area,” it continued.

“Because the applicant [the city] does not hold a valid right to use or occupy national forest system lands, and the U.S. Forest Service lacks authority to authorize development of Maroon Creek Reservoir within the Maroon Bells–Snowmass Wilderness Area, the applicant cannot show that it can and will complete the claimed appropriation within a reasonable time,” the statement of opposition said.

The statements of opposition from the U.S. were signed by John Cruden, the assistant attorney general at the Environment and Natural Resources Division in the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., and James DuBois, a trial attorney with the department, who is based in Denver.

In September, the acting district ranger in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, Kevin Warner, told the Aspen City Council it would take a presidential exemption to the Wilderness Act to allow the Forest Service to issue a permit for the reservoirs.

“Based on our understanding of the Wilderness Act, and the fact that there was no exception built into the designation for the Maroon Bells wilderness area … it would need to go to the president,” Warner said.

The city has not filed for a Forest Service permit for either reservoir.

A beaver pond in 2016, where the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir would be located.

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

A beaver pond in 2016, where the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir would be located.

Pitkin County’s view

Staff attorneys for Pitkin County told the court that the city should be held to “strict proof” to its claims, including its “ownership of or enforceable property interest” in the dam and reservoir sites.

“This water right is located within a designated wilderness area and the applicant’s ability to obtain the property interest necessary to construct the structure, as decreed, within this wilderness area is unproven,” the county told the court.

The county also told that court the city’s 2016 water supply study “demonstrates that this water right is unnecessary to meet current and future demand within a reasonable planning period using normal population growth assumptions.”

It also said recent statements by Aspen’s mayor and city council members “indicate that [the city] does not intend to effectuate these water rights in a reasonable time period,” and that the city “appears to be speculating with no reasonable demonstration of need.”

Statements of opposition filed in 16CW3128 and 16CW3129

Case Filing party, and principalsAttorneys listed in statement of opposition Link to statements and other documents
16CW3128
Maroon Creek Reservoir
USA, on behalf of USFSJohn Cruden, Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Dept. of Justice
James J. DuBois, U.S. Dept. of Justice
Statement of opposition
Pitkin County
(John Ely, county attorney)
John Ely. County Attorney
Laura Makar, Assistant Pitkin County Attorney
Richard Neiley, Assistant Pitkin County Attorney
Statement of opposition
BOCC resolution
American Rivers
(Matt Rice, program director)
Paul Noto and Jason Groves, Patrick, Miller and NotoStatement of opposition
Press release
Colorado Trout Unlimited
(David Nickum, executive director)
Paul Noto and Jason Groves, Patrick, Miller and Noto
Statement of opposition
Press release
Western Resource Advocates
(Bart Miller, program director)
Bart Miller, program director and attorney, Western Resource Advocates
Robert Harris, senior staff attorney, Western Resource Advocates
Statement of opposition
WW newsletter
Wilderness Workshop
(Will Roush, conservation director)
Bart Miller, program director & attorney, Western Resource Advocates
Robert Harris, senior staff attorney, Western Resource Advocates
Statement of opposition
Newsletter
Press release
Roaring Fork Land & Cattle Co.
(Thomas and Margot Pritzker)
Paul Noto and Jason Groves, Patrick, Miller & Noto
Statement of opposition
Larsen Family LP
(Marcella Larsen)
Craig Corona, Corona Water Law
Statement of opposition
16CW3129
Cast;e Creek Reservoir
USA (USFS)John Cruden, Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Dept. of Justice
James J. DuBois, U.S. Dept. of Justice
Statement of opposition
Pitkin County
(John Ely, county attorney)
John Ely. County Attorney
Laura Makar, Assistant Pitkin County Attorney
Richard Neiley, Assistant Pitkin County Attorney
Statement of opposition
American Rivers
(Matt Rice, program director)
Paul Noto and Jason Groves, Patrick, Miller & Noto
Statement of opposition
Press release
Colorado Trout Unlimited
(David Nickum, executive director)
Paul Noto and Jason Groves, Patrick, Miller & Noto
Statement of opposition
Press release
Western Resource Advocates
(Bart Miller, program director)
Bart Miller, program director & attorney, Western Resource Advocates
Robert Harris, senior staff attorney, Western Resource Advocates
Statement of opposition
WW newsletter
Wilderness Workshop
(Will Roush, conservation director)
Bart Miller, program director & attorney, Western Resource Advocates
Robert Harris, senior staff attorney, Western Resource Advocates
Statement of opposition
Newsletter
Press release
Double R Creek Ltd
(Robert Y.C. Ho)
Kevin Patrick and Christopher Stork, Patrick, Miller and Noto
Statement of opposition
Asp Properties, LLC
(Charles Somers)
Rhonda Bazil, Rhonda Bazil, P.C.Statement of opposition
City of Aspen infoPrincipal staffAttorneys in casesLinks to applications and other documents
David Hornbacher, director of utilities and environmental initiativesCynthia Covell, Andrea Benson and Alyson Scott, Alperstein and CovellMaroon Creek application (16CW3128)
Castle Creek application (16CW3129)
Resolution
Press release

16 statements

In all, 16 statements of opposition were filed in the two water court cases by 10 different parties.

In addition to the two governments, U.S. and Pitkin County, four environmental organizations filed statements in both cases: Colorado Trout Unlimited, American Rivers, Wilderness Workshop, and Western Resource Advocates.

As such, there is a common set of six parties in each case – the two governments and the four environmental groups – and they’ve filed 12 statements between them, six in each case.

There are also four different property owners, two in each case, and they each filed one statement. That adds four statements to the list of 12, for a mind-numbing total of 16.

Making it somewhat easier to track, the list does break out into eight parties in each case: two governments, four environmental organizations, and a unique pair of property owners.

The differing pairs of property owners in each case brings to 10 the total number of parties across the two cases.

A detail of a map showing the location of a potential dam forming the Castle Creek Reservoir, with underlying property owners. The map was prepared with information based on a map the city filed with the state in 1965.

Source: Aspen Journalism

A detail of a map showing the location of a potential dam forming the Castle Creek Reservoir, with underlying property owners. The map was prepared with information based on a map the city filed with the state in 1965.

Property owners

The two property owners who filed in the Maroon Creek case are Roaring Fork Land and Cattle Co. and Larsen Family LP.

Roaring Fork Land and Cattle is an entity controlled by Thomas and Margot Pritzker. The Pritzkers, who are on the Forbes billionaires list, own property near T-Lazy-7 Ranch in the Maroon Creek valley.

Marcella Larsen of Aspen is the co-manager of the Larsen Family LP, based in Boca Raton, Fla., and she signed the statement of opposition. The Larsen family owns residential property in the lower Maroon Creek valley.

The two property owners who filed in the Castle Creek case are Double R Creek Ltd. and Asp Properties LLC. Double R Creek is controlled by Robert Y.C. Ho, a member of a prominent Hong Kong family, while Asp Properties is controlled by Charles Somers, the CEO of a company based in California.

The properties owned by Ho and Somers are located under the potential dam site of Castle Creek Reservoir, two miles below Ashcroft.

A 2016 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 1965.

Source: Wilderness Workshop

A 2016 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 in 1965.

Environmental arguments

The statements of opposition filed by the four environmental groups do not offer much insight as to why they are in the cases, but they issued press releases about their filings.

“Aspen does not need these dams for municipal water supply, climate resiliency, or for stream protection – now or at any time in the foreseeable future,” a Dec. 28 release from American Rivers quoted Matt Rice, its director of programs in the Colorado River basin, as saying.

The same release also quoted David Nickum, the executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited, as saying, “Building dams on free-flowing streams in one of Colorado’s most iconic wilderness areas is the last approach we should be taking to meet water needs in the 21st Century.”

Wilderness Workshop of Carbondale, which is collaborating with Western Resource Advocates of Boulder, released both a press release on Dec. 21 and an article about the water court cases from its newsletter.

“Both dams would inundate portions of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness and cause significant environmental damage: severing the streams in two, flooding important riparian habitat, and reducing the ecologically critical spring peak flows,” Wilderness Workshop’s newsletter said.

“The city council met three times this fall to discuss water rights, but those meetings focused almost exclusively on the impact of population growth and climate change to Aspen’s future water supply,” Wilderness Workshop members were told.  “They were silent on the ecological impacts of the dams, the regulatory obstacles, financial costs and dubious assertion that these rights actually protect the streams. Over a dozen concerned citizens spoke, unanimously asking the city to abandon their water rights.

“Despite this outcry, the city is moving ahead. All five council members justified their vote on the basis that we might need to store water in the future despite their recent study concluding just the opposite,” the organization said.

In its press release, the Wilderness Workshop quoted Will Roush, its conservation director, as saying: “We’re filing for two reasons: first, to have a seat at the table with the city and other parties to find common ground and second, to make sure that dams are never built on Castle or Maroon Creeks.”

Castle Creek, not far below Ashcroft. This section of river would be covered by a potential Castle Creek Reservoir.

Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Castle Creek, not far below Ashcroft. This section of river would be covered by a potential Castle Creek Reservoir.

City’s position

David Hornbacher, the city’s director of utilities and environmental initiatives, declined to comment on the statements of opposition.

A resolution unanimously approved by the city council on Oct. 10 said, “the city is obligated and intends to provide a legal and reliable water supply and to that end can and will develop all necessary water rights, including but not limited to, Maroon Creek Reservoir and Castle Creek Reservoir.”

In its diligence applications, the city told the court the two reservoirs are “part of Aspen’s integrated water supply system” and “part of Aspen’s long-range plan to maintain a water supply to meet current and future demand.”

Further, the city said it has “steadily applied effort to complete the appropriation” of the water rights for the reservoirs and it has done so “in a reasonably expedient and efficient manner under all the facts and circumstances.”

However, in its Oct. 10 resolution, the city council also directed its staff to “enhance and increase the city’s efforts to investigate alternative locations and sizing requirements of the Maroon Creek Reservoir and/or Castle Creek Reservoir, and to report its findings back to City Council for further consideration and action as appropriate.”

Typically in water court cases, opposing parties are given a year to try and work out their differences under the guidance of a water court referee. The discussions among parties in this phase of the process are private.

If parties cannot reach agreement within a year, they can ask for another six months. And then dates are eventually set for a trial in front of a judge.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. The Daily News published this story on Monday, Jan. 2, 2017.

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