ASPEN — With the clock ticking on moving its conditional water-storage rights, the city of Aspen is taking steps toward developing a water integrated resource plan, or IRP.
City Council last month approved spending $81,674 to hire Broomfield-based Carollo Engineers as a consultant for the first phase of the IRP. A main goal of the plan will be to decide where to move the city’s conditional water-storage rights after a water court judge in June approved the city’s settlement with opposing parties in two water court cases. The decrees issued by the judge in those cases rule out the possibility of the city building dams or reservoirs on upper Castle or Maroon creeks.
The city has six years to finalize a plan to move the water rights and associated storage to new locations. That and the increasing effects of a hotter, drier climate, which means less water in streams, have the city feeling a sense of urgency when it comes to figuring out its water supply.
“We do have a sense of urgency, but we also recognize we are only going to get one chance to make such a large change to our system,” said Margaret Medellin, Aspen’s utilities resource manager. “We want to do it right.”
Conditional water rights
All 10 parties who settled with the city in water court, one of which was environmental group American Rivers, agreed not to oppose the city’s efforts to change its conditional water-storage rights to different sites.
Instead of flooding two pristine valleys to create reservoirs, the city has identified five other locations to where it could possibly store water. Those sites are the city golf course; the Maroon Creek Club golf course; the city’s Cozy Point open space; the Woody Creek gravel pit; and a 63-acre parcel of land next to the gravel pit, which the city bought in 2018.
“We don’t have any issue with Aspen’s plan to move forward with those conditional water rights,” said Matt Rice, director of American Rivers’ Colorado Basin Program. “That’s a decision for them and local stakeholders to make.”
Carollo Engineers was one of five firms that responded to the city’s summer request for proposals. The more than $81,000 that the City Council approved will pay for Carollo to complete only Phase 1 of the IRP, which will define goals and develop a detailed scope of work. Phase 2 would create the IRP using community input.
“Normally, when we do an IRP, we are looking at what the future looks like in terms of water needs and trying to characterize those and predict them out several decades,” said John Rehring, senior project manager and vice president of Carollo Engineers.
City officials maintain that a lack of reservoir storage is a problem.
Medellin said the lack of water-storage facilities is a big weakness in the city’s water system and that it is controversial to build dams and reservoirs “because every valley up here is beautiful.”
But, Medellin said, climate change may increase the need for water storage.
“We’ve acknowledged these storage rights are very important to the future of Aspen, especially as we start to see climate-change implications,” she said.
Carollo Engineers agrees with that assessment.
“Clearly, the city of Aspen’s system lacks the water storage it needs to reliably meet demands through a range of supply-and-demand conditions even now — before the impacts of climate change have fully taken hold,” the proposal reads.
The issue of storage came to the forefront in the Aspen community in 2012 when news broke that the city was contemplating using its conditional water-storage rights to build dams and reservoirs in Castle and Maroon valleys.
Consultants have come to different conclusions about how much water storage the city actually needs. A 2017 report by Deere and Ault Consultants, which was based on conclusions in a risk analysis by Headwaters Corporation, said Aspen needs 8,500 acre-feet of water storage. But a 2016 study by Wilson Water concluded Aspen does not need any storage.
Two other areas that the IRP will address is the vulnerability of Aspen’s water supply to natural disasters such as 2018’s Lake Christine Fire and last winter’s historic avalanches in Castle and Maroon valleys, as well as how to decrease customers’ demand for water. Even though Aspen has taken steps to reduce the use of water for outdoor irrigation through a landscape ordinance, those gains could be wiped out because in a warmer future, there will be less water flowing in local streams.
“It’s almost like you are playing this game where you, on one hand, lower the level of demand but, on the other side of the equation, climate change is decreasing our supply,” Medellin said.
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Nov. 26 edition of The Aspen Times.