Western Resource Advocates and Wilderness Workshop are opposing the city of Aspen’s efforts in water court to maintain conditional water storage rights tied to two potential dams on Castle and Maroon creeks. But the environmental organizations are formally collaborating with the city on finding water-supply alternatives to the two potential dams.

In late July, Western Resource Advocates and Wilderness Workshop joined the city in filing a preliminary application with the Colorado Water Conservation Board seeking state funds for a local study of potential “agricultural transfer mechanisms,” or ATMs.

Such programs provide alternatives to the “buy and dry” approach often used by cities to obtain water from ranchers and farmers.

“We all recognize that the issues that face our region will only be solved through the creative interaction of the entire community, and we hope that this effort will lead to more productive and collaborative projects,” Margaret Medellin, a utilities portfolio manager with the city, wrote in an email about the joint application.

CWCB officials recently asked water managers in the state to file either grant applications or notices of intent to apply so they could gauge interest for a new $10 million grant program designed to spur projects and programs spelled out in the 2015 Colorado Water Plan.

By the Aug. 1 deadline the state received 28 such notices for future grant cycles, including the one from the city and the environmental groups. In total, the “intent” notices identified more than $7.6 million in spending on various projects, according to a CWCB newsletter sent out Aug. 3. The CWCB also received 32 regular grant applications, requesting a total of $8.9 million for projects worth $60 million.

The scope and details of the emerging collaborative effort among the city, Western Resource Advocates, and Wilderness Workshop were not included in their preliminary application to the CWCB, including how much money the groups might seek.

“At this point, there isn’t much information to share as project details still need to be developed,” Medellin said. “Once we jointly identify a pilot project, we will submit an application to the CWCB for funds.”

The application says a statement of work, a budget, and a list of other funding sources will be forthcoming.

The CWCB’s board of directors will review and approve the new water plan grants in a two-step, two-meeting, process. The next grant application deadline is Oct. 1.

A field in the Roaring Fork River valley below Aspen. The city of Aspen hopes to work with irrigators to develop a source of water to meet its needs. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Work with irrigators

The three entities told the state they “seek to work with one or more irrigators in the Roaring Fork Valley to develop an alternative transfer mechanism that will help meet local water needs and demonstrate an alternative to buy-and-dry.”

According to the state water plan, ATMs can include techniques such as “rotational fallowing,” where irrigators voluntarily enter into a lease to stop watering parts of their fields during drought conditions. Or they can take the form of “interruptible supply agreements,” where irrigators agree to lease a certain percentage of their water to a city.

The joint application to the state says “the exact type of ATM would be determined in collaboration between Aspen, irrigators, Wilderness Workshop, and Western Resource Advocates, and be in accordance with ATM types described” in the water plan.

On Aug. 3, the city put forth a settlement agreement to the two environmental organizations it is now collaborating with and to eight other opposing parties in the water court cases regarding the potential dams.

The city said it was willing to move its conditional right to store 4,567 acre-feet of water on Maroon Creek to other locations in the Roaring Fork River valley, including land in Woody Creek next to the Elam gravel pit, and the gravel pit itself.

However, the city did not commit to moving its 9,062-acre-foot right in Castle Creek, apart from a small portion that might flood a sliver of the wilderness.

While Wilderness Workshop and Western Resource Advocates are collaborating with the city on alternatives to storage, they are firmly opposed to the city maintaining storage rights in either Castle or Maroon creek valley.

“Moving the dams out of these two iconic valleys is dead center with our mission,” said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop. “Working collaboratively with partners in exploring alternative approaches to water supply will help achieve that mission-centric goal.”

A status conference was held about the cases with the water court referee Aug. 10. The parties agreed to another 90-day period to continue settlement efforts, with the next status conference in the case set for Nov. 9.

Aspen Journalism is an independent nonprofit news organization collaborating with The Aspen Times on the coverage of rivers and water. The Times published this story on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017.

Brent Gardner-Smith

Brent Gardner-Smith

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...