The city of Aspen has told opposing parties in two water court cases it is willing to remove the prospect of a potential Maroon Creek Reservoir from the Maroon Creek valley, if the way is made clear for it to apply to transfer the conditional water rights for the reservoir to other sites in the Roaring Fork River valley.

The city’s proposal requires the parties to let the city’s periodic diligence applications proceed unopposed, and to also agree not to challenge the city’s efforts to transfer the water rights in new cases, according to several attorneys for opposing parties who attended a city-hosted settlement meeting Wednesday.

And, the city said, even if it’s not successful in those cases, it won’t return and try to store water in the current location of the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir.

“We had a great meeting with the city yesterday and we’re very encouraged that we’ll be able to settle the Larsen family’s opposition on the Maroon Creek Reservoir by the end of the year,” said Craig Corona, a water attorney in Aspen representing Larsen Family LP, which is only in the Maroon Creek case in water court.

Aspen City Attorney Jim True said Thursday that “potential resolutions of the cases were discussed” at the meeting. He was there along with other Aspen officials, including City Manager Steve Barwick, Mayor Steve Skadron and Aspen City Councilwoman Ann Mullins.

Representatives or attorneys from nine of the 10 opposing parties were at the closed-door meeting.

The city of Aspen told the opposing parties it wants to transfer the full 4,567 acre-foot conditional storage right in the Maroon Creek Reservoir to other potential sites, including the Aspen golf course, Cozy Point Ranch at Brush Creek Road, an approximately 60-acre site next to the gravel pit in Woody Creek operated by Elam Construction Inc., or the already-excavated gravel pit. (Barwick, during a July 19 press conference, described the city’s general intent to try and transfer the water rights.)

Paul Noto is a water attorney representing American Rivers, Colorado Trout Unlimited, and the Roaring Fork Land and Cattle Co. in the Maroon Creek case, and the two environmental groups in the Castle Creek case. He said they were “getting closer” to a settlement.

“The proposal on Maroon Creek, we are a lot closer on, because as I understand it, the city is committing to move their water storage right, and therefore the potential to dam the creek, out of Maroon Creek valley forever and always,” he said. “And that’s a good thing.”

A map showing the potential Castle Creek Reservoir. The city of Aspen has agreed not to flood property owned by Simon Pinniger and Mark and Karen Hedstrom, and so the reservoir is expected to be smaller than shown. Credit: Source: Pitkin County GIS

Castle Creek proposal

The city’s proposal regarding the 9,062-acre-foot Castle Creek Reservoir is more complex than its proposal for the Maroon Creek Reservoir.

The city said it would be willing to reduce the size of the Castle Creek Reservoir so it does not flood very small portions of the wilderness, as it does under its current decree. It would then move those portions of the water rights out of the Castle Creek valley.

(Since 2010, the city has signed agreements with two other private-property owners whose lands would be flooded by the Castle Creek Reservoir. The city agreed not to flood portions of land owned by Simon Pinniger and by Mark and Karen Hedstrom, on the upstream edge of the potential reservoir. “It is expected that this commitment by Aspen will result in a reduction in the volume and surface area of the Castle Creek Reservoir, and Aspen has contracted for a preliminary investigation of the anticipated revised size and volume of the Castle Creek Reservoir,” the city’s due diligence application from Oct. 31, 2016, states. As such, it might already be the case that the potential reservoir would not encroach on the wilderness.)

The city also said it might further reduce the size of the reservoir if that’s consistent with the size of the city’s future water needs, which are not yet determined. It also might move the resulting reservoir off the private land where it is now sited to another unspecified location or locations.

“The city is just not willing yet to make the commitment to move the water right out of the Castle Creek valley forever and always,” Noto said. “They have more work to do and studies to do to be able to be comfortable in making that commitment.”

But the negotiations over Castle Creek could slow down an agreement on Maroon Creek.

“At this point they aren’t willing to commit to settling the Maroon Creek case separately from the Castle Creek case, so there is a bit of a timing issue because we have more work to do on Castle Creek,” Noto said.

A view, looking toward Aspen, of the gravel pit in Woody Creek operated by Elam Construction Inc. The city has put the sage-covered property next to the gravel pit, to the right in the photo, under contract as a potential reservoir site. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Since 1965

As currently decreed, the Maroon Creek Reservoir would be formed by a 155-foot-tall dam that would back up water over 85 acres of USFS land about two miles below Maroon Lake and would flood a portion of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

The Castle Creek Reservoir would require a 170-foot-tall dam across Castle Creek two miles below Ashcroft, mainly on private land, but with some USFS and wilderness land flooded. The surface area of the reservoir would cover 120 acres of land.

The conditional storage rights for the two reservoirs carry a 1971 decree date and were filed by the city in 1965. Since then the city has periodically told the state it still intends to build the two reservoirs someday, if necessary.

In October, the city submitted two due diligence applications for the potential reservoirs in water court. The applications drew opposition from 10 parties, including four landowners, four environmental groups, Pitkin County and the U.S. Forest Service.

“I think the city has done a lot of work in a short time frame since the last meeting, but there is still a lot more work for all the parties to do,” said Rob Harris, an attorney with Western Resource Advocates who is representing WRA and Wilderness Workshop in the two cases. “Frankly, for both of these water rights, neither one is moved out until they are moved out. We can talk about potential alternative solutions, but we’re not through the woods until both water rights are out of these valleys.”

When asked about the city’s proposal on Castle Creek, Harris said WRA was “committed to protecting” both valleys.

“We do genuinely believe that the city’s goal is to protect these valleys and to avoid building dams in them,” Harris also said. “But their goal is also to hang on to as much of their water right as they can feel comfortable hanging on to. And we have to work really hard to make those goals compatible.”

Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times on coverage of water. The Times published this story on Friday, August 4, 2017.

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...