The city of Aspen announced Tuesday it has reached settlement agreements with all 10 of the opposing parties in two water court cases where the city was seeking to maintain conditional water rights tied to large potential dams on upper Castle and Maroon creeks.

Craig Corona, the water attorney for Larsen Family LP, signed the last of the settlement agreements with the city Oct. 11. The other nine parties in the cases had all signed agreements by August.

The city has filed all of the settlement agreements, or stipulations, with the Division 5 water court in Glenwood Springs, along with a motion asking for a water court judge to approve them.

If the judge approves the stipulations as expected, it would mean that the issues raised in the cases by opponents, and the state, would not be contested in a trial setting.

Under the agreements, the city has agreed to walk away from the potential dam locations, roughly 2 miles below Maroon Lake in the Maroon Creek valley and 2 miles below Ashcroft in the Castle Creek valley, and instead pursue the right to store water in five other identified locations.

Those locations include the city’s golf course, the Maroon Creek Club golf course, which is partially on open space property owned by the city, the Cozy Point open space, the gravel pit in Woody Creek operated by Elam Construction, and a parcel of land next to the gravel pit purchased by the city specifically for future potential water storage.

A map prepared for the City of Aspen that shows the five sites in the Roaring Fork River valley where the city of Aspen is proposing to store up to 8,500 acre-feet in water, based on its conditional rights to store water in the upper Maroon and Castle creek valleys. Credit: Source: City of Aspen

Moving the rights

The city’s conditional water storage rights on Castle and Maroon creeks carry a 1971 decree date and the city plans to file a new application with the state water court to transfer the rights to the new locations, with their 1971 priority date intact.

Under the agreements, the city could file for rights to store as much as 8,500 acre-feet of water in the new locations, without any opposition in water court from the entities in the Castle and Maroon creek cases.

However, parties outside of the two cases could still file statements of opposition in the city’s expected change case.

Under the agreements, if the city is not successful in moving the water rights, it cannot return and claim the water rights in their original locations on upper Castle and Maroon creeks.

The city filed its two diligence applications for Castle Creek Reservoir and Maroon Creek Reservoir in October 2016.

The city’s conditional water storage rights on Maroon Creek are tied to a potential 155-foot-high dam backing up 4,567 acre-feet of water below the confluence of East and West Maroon creeks, in a pristine meadow within view of the Maroon Bells.

The dam and reservoir would have been on Forest Service land and would have flooded portions of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

On Castle Creek, the city has conditional rights to store 9,062 acre-feet of water behind a 170-foot-tall dam, mostly on private land but also flooding a corner of USFS property and the wilderness.

Margaret Medellin, a utilities portfolio manager with the city, said once the water court judge approves the signed settlements, the city will begin to study in earnest exactly how much water it feels it needs to store in the potential new locations.

And while the city would have six years to file its change case under the agreements, Medellin said she expects the city will file the application as soon as it is ready.

Two news releases, one from the city and one from the four environmental groups in the cases, were sent out Tuesday heralding the settlements.

“Throughout this process, City Council was acting in the best interest of its current and future water customers as part of prudent water management, Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron said in the city’s release. “I am proud we were able to safeguard our future water storage needs while also collaborating to protect sensitive wilderness areas.”

And a release from the four environmental groups in the cases carried the subheadline, “Final agreement means Aspen will abandon plans to build dams on Maroon and Castle creeks.”

Medellin acknowledged, however, that a key next step still needs to occur for the city in the cases, and that’s approval by the water court judge of the signed agreements.

“We still need to hear what the judge has to say,” she said.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is covering rivers and water in the Colorado River basin in collaboration with The Aspen Times. The Times published this story on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018.

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...