ASPEN – Aspen city officials plan to reveal this week a proposal that seeks to resolve some of the issues raised by its efforts to maintain conditional water storage rights tied to potential dams and reservoirs on upper Castle and Maroon creeks.

Last week the city approved money to study underground storage, looked into how much water storage it needs, and responded in water court to a previous filing. In the past month, city officials also have met with a number of opponents in the water case.

“Things are changing rather quickly regarding the current diligence cases,” Aspen City Manager Steve Barwick said Friday, referring to the two ongoing due diligence cases now unfolding in Division 5 water court. “I expect a completely different discussion will be taking place within one week.”

Barwick also said he and other city staff members “have a great deal of work to do toward that outcome” and he expects to hold a news conference by Friday about the city’s proposal.

As presently decreed, the Maroon Creek Reservoir would store 4,567 acre-feet of water behind a 155-foot-tall dam a mile and a half below Maroon Lake. The Castle Creek Reservoir would hold 9,062 acre-feet behind a 170-foot-tall dam on the main stem of Castle Creek two miles below Ashcroft.

The city originally filed for the water rights in 1965 and has periodically told the state it intends to build the dams and reservoirs, if necessary, as part of its municipal water system.

The city filed its most recent applications for due diligence on Oct. 31, 2016, and is seeking to hold on to its conditional rights for another six years.

City officials do not appear to have tipped their hand to the opposing parties in the cases about the substance of this week’s announcements.

“I really don’t know what the city will present at its big announcement,” said Rob Harris, senior staff attorney at Western Resource Advocates, who recently met with city officials on potential alternatives to the reservoirs, along with a representative from Wilderness Workshop of Carbondale. “I’m assuming that this will be more in the nature of the city announcing its preferred solution, or some part thereof, rather than any sort of finalized deal with any of the parties.

“Whatever they present, the follow-up questions we’re going to be asking include whether their idea moves Castle and Maroon creeks upstream of Aspen closer to permanent protection and, if their idea involves moving any or all of the water rights, what the potential impacts and benefits of that change will be,” Harris said.

The environmental organizations opposing the city in water court also include Colorado Trout Unlimited and American Rivers.

“What would not make us happy is if they said, ‘We will significantly downsize these reservoirs but keep them in the same place,’” said Matt Rice, director of American River’s Colorado River basin program, during an interview in late June. “We’re hopeful they are coming around to the impossibility of developing those projects in the two valleys, and what that means for this diligence, and that they are getting realistic about more-appropriately sized projects that can help them meet their water supply needs.”

Rice also said that Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron met with Bob Irvin, the president and CEO of American Rivers, on June 21 at city hall for 45 minutes.

“It was an opportunity to extend an olive branch of sorts and commit to working toward a resolution to this issue in good faith,” said Rice.

The city has scheduled a second settlement conference for Aug. 2 with the 10 opposing parties in the water rights cases.

A view of the Aspen municipal golf course from Red Butte. A consulting engineer for the city of Aspen has found that an in-situ reservoir could likely be built to store water under the golf course, which sits on about 75 feet of glacially deposited rock and gravel. A trench filled in with a clay-like material could be dug around the perimeter of the golf course and water could be poured into the open space in the remaining gravel, and pumped back out as necessary. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Golf course option?

On Monday the City Council approved a $116,000 contract with the engineering firm of Deere and Ault of Longmont to drill test bores and dig exploratory pits on the course at the Aspen Golf Club, and other potential reservoir locations, as part of a feasibility study of an in-situ, or underground, reservoir.

Such an in-situ reservoir on the golf course would likely hold about 1,200 acre-feet of water, according to a preliminary investigation done by Deere and Ault.

Deere and Ault now plans to drill up to six test bores through what is estimated to be 75 feet of gravel under the golf course, or other potential locations, and to dig up to eight pits, of undisclosed size, to analyze the soil and gravel conditions.

City Engineer Trish Aragon said this week that a construction management plan will be required by the city’s engineering department for any drilling work on the golf course that goes deeper than 50 feet.

And a permit would be required if the excavation pits disturb more than 200 square feet of surface area.

Aragon, after checking with officials at the city’s water department, said it has not yet been determined when, or where, the drilling or digging will take place on the golf course.

The members of Aspen City Council on Monday, July 10, 2017. From left, Bert Myrin, Ward Hauenstein, Mayor Steve Skadron, Ann Mullins, and Adam Frisch. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

In water court

On the same day the City Council approved further investigations on the golf course, or other potential locations, the city’s water attorney, Cindy Covell of Alperstein and Covell in Denver, submitted a required response to a summary of consultation report filed by the division engineer in Division 5, Alan Martellaro, on Jan. 23.

In a July 10 letter Covell told Martellaro that Aspen “understands that it must meet the required burden of proof at trial,” but otherwise she left the concerns of the state officials unaddressed.

The report, prepared after consulting with water referee Susan Ryan, challenged the core of Aspen’s applications for the dam and reservoir rights.

“I cannot recommend approval of this application until the following concerns are addressed,” Martello’s report began, in a standard opening line for such reports.

The first concern cited was about the phrase “other beneficial uses” in the city’s claims to maintain its conditional storage rights, which carry a 1971 decree date.

And the second concern was whether Aspen’s applications meet key tests in a due diligence case.

“Regarding the ‘can and will’ and the ‘anti-speculation’ doctrines,” Martellaro wrote, “the applicant must demonstrate” that it will secure necessary permits and land-use approvals, that it will complete the projects “within a reasonable time,” that a “specific plan is in place to develop the subject water rights,” and that the city “is not speculating with the subject water rights.”

The issues raised by the state officials are much the same as those raised by the 10 opposing parties in the two cases.

The parties, in addition to the four environmental organizations, include Pitkin County, the United States Forest Service, and four private landowners.

Two of the landowners own property in the Maroon Creek valley, Thomas and Margot Pritzker and Marcella Larsen and her family. And two own property in the Castle Creek valley, Robert Y.C. Ho and Charles Somers.

“I think the division engineer raised some serious concerns that are entirely consistent with ours,” Rice of American Rivers said in late June. “We would appreciate it if they would answer the core questions.”

But the city chose not to do that this week.

The questions raised in the summary of consultation remain open in the case, however, and may be addressed in the future by the water referee or at trial, as Covell suggested.

The location of the potential Maroon Creek dam and reservoir, just below the confluence of East and West Maroon creeks. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Supply and uncertainty

On Tuesday the City Council got an update on a risk analysis being conducted by Headwaters Corp. of Nebraska regarding the city’s future water supply and demand equation.

George Oamek, the economist who is preparing the study, submitted a preliminary report to the city on July 3, in an effort to help the City Council determine how much they will need in the future and where they should store it.

He told the council that in order to complete his risk analysis, he and the council members are going to have make a number of assumptions about “uncertain variables.”

He said the data recorded by now defunct stream gauges on Castle and Maroon creeks from 1970 to 1994 was insufficient for his analysis, although the 24 years of data has been the basis of several other in-depth water supply and demand studies done for the city.

He said that available climate data would be hard to use to predict local conditions.

And he recommended using land-use projections in Aspen and Pitkin County to determine future water demand, as opposed to the standard methodology of using population projections.

Oamek also presented a pie chart to the council that illustrated the varying degrees of uncertainty presented by each of those areas.

About 70 percent of the uncertainty, and thus required assumptions, is in the area of climate change, he said, while 20 percent was related to the gaps in the data about flows in the creek, and 10 percent was tied to demand projections.

Oamek told the City Council members that he was relying on them for assumptions about land use and population.

Margaret Medellin, a utilities portfolio manager for the city, told the council that Tuesday’s meeting on the Headwaters study was not the last.

“This is just the first of many conversations,” she said. “We’ll be coming back to council for quite some time.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the Vail Daily, and the Summit Daily on coverage of rivers and water. The Times published a shorter version of this story on Monday, July 17, 2017.

Clarification: Since publication of this story, Aspen Journalism has learned that the purpose of the amended contract approved on July 10 by the city council was not only for drilling on the city’s golf course, as reported, but also, potentially, for drilling on a parcel of land the city was negotiating to purchase in Woody Creek, and on other potential reservoir locations. As such, we’ve corrected this story to reflect that the drilling contract was also potentially for work on other sites, as well as the golf course. As Aspen City Manager Steve Barwick said during a July 19 press conference about the amended contract, “It was for the golf course and other sites.”

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...