The city of Aspen has closed on a $2.68 million purchase of 63 acres of land in Woody Creek where it may someday build one or more reservoirs that it considers “the best existing alternative” to constructing two potential dams and reservoirs on upper Maroon and Castle creeks.

The city announced in July its intention to transfer the conditional water storage rights it holds on Castle and Maroon creeks to Woody Creek and other potential sites.

And in December, the City Council voted to borrow $2.5 million from the Wheeler Opera House reserve fund to pay for the land.

In November, city voters rejected a proposed bond issue by the city to cover the cost of the purchase.

The spending resolution adopted by the city on Dec. 11 states that “the City Council has evaluated these parcels to be the best existing alternative solution relative to current water storage rights held in the upper Castle and Maroon creek valleys.”

The city now owns both a 61-acre parcel of land on Raceway Drive valued by the Pitkin County Assessor’s Office at $2.3 million and a 1.9-acre parcel on Upper River Road valued at $100,000.

The larger parcel is a sagebrush-covered bench of land next to the existing gravel pit in Woody Creek operated by Elam Construction. The smaller parcel is next to the Woody Creek post office and was required as part of the deal offered by the sellers.

A map from a study done for the city of Aspen by Deere and Ault showing the two parcels of land in Woody Creek that the city sees as potential water storage sites. Both locations are a short walk from the Woody Creek Tavern and the Woody Creek post office. The Pitkin County assessor lists the larger parcel purchased by the city as containing 61 acres. Credit: City of Aspen

Prior ownership

The two parcels have been owned for decades by Woody Creek Development Company, a partnership dating back to 1970 between Robert “Bugsy” Barnard, Joel T. Hartmeister, and J.S. Baxter.

Barnard served on the Aspen City Council from 1964 to 1966 and was twice elected mayor of Aspen, in 1966 and 1968.

In his bid to be elected to the council, Barnard stated in 1963 that “by ceasing to use any of the city’s surface water rights in the Roaring Fork River, Castle Creek or Maroon Creek, Aspen faces the serious risk of losing these water rights through non-use.”

And Barnard was serving on the City Council in 1965 when the city filed with the state to create its conditional water storage rights on Maroon and Castle creeks.

The three partners in Woody Creek Development Co. are now deceased, and the city bought the two parcels from their heirs, which required estate work by the sellers and three separate deeds to complete the sale, according to Aspen City Attorney Jim True.

“The Woody Creek Development Company was listed as an owner of the parcel and did initially execute the contract,” True said. “The ownership structure of the company was complicated and resolving the ownership issues involved some estate work by the sellers. This was why closing was delayed several times. At the end of the day the sale was structured in this manner, with three separate deeds, following extensive work by the title company and the sellers.”

The city paid $893,333 to GRE Properties II LLC, $893,333 to Frederic J. Hartmeister, and $894,334 to Baxter Girls LLC, for a total of $2.68 million.

The deeds were recorded with the Pitkin County clerk’s office on Feb. 13.

The third alternative in the Deere and Ault study shows a 1,000 acre-foot reservoir in the gravel pit and a 2,000 acre-foot reservoir on the parcel now owned by the city of Aspen. Credit: City of Aspen/Deere and Ault

Storage options

An engineering study conducted for the city by Deere and Ault in September found that a range of reservoirs could be built on the Woody Creek parcel and the adjacent gravel pit site.

In one scenario, up to 8,000 acre-feet of water could be stored in a reservoir located on both the city’s new property and the gravel pit at a cost of $81 million. The city parcel sits on a deep layer of gravel, which would require excavation to store water.

Another of four scenarios in the reservoir study includes building 1,000 acre-feet of storage in the already excavated gravel pit and 2,000 acre-feet of storage on the parcel now owned by the city, for a combined cost of $74 million.

The city does not have a formal agreement with Elam Construction, or its parent company, Kilgore Companies, to someday use the Woody Creek gravel pit as a reservoir, but a company official expressed support for the concept in July.

“I’m proud that City Council is showing leadership for our community’s water future,” said Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron about the Woody Creek land purchase in a written statement provided to Aspen Journalism. “We explored alternatives for water storage and we believe we’ve come up with the best solution for prudent water management that serves the needs of our water customers and speaks to our environmental values. The water storage project at Woody Creek is a testament to what we can achieve when working together as a community.”

In 1965, an engineer working for the city of Aspen selected this location, just below the confluence of East and West Maroon creeks, as the location for a potential 155-foot-tall dam. The city is still on record with the state as intending to build the dam here, if necessary, to meet its future water needs. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Best alternative

The city’s search for alternative water storage locations outside of the Maroon Creek and Castle Creek valleys intensified after it filed two “diligence” applications in Division 5 Water Court in October 2016 to maintain its storage rights. The applications were met with opposition from four property owners, four environmental groups, Pitkin County and the U.S. Forest Service.

The city’s conditional storage rights, which were filed on in 1965, are predicated on the city someday storing 4,567 acre-feet of water behind a 155-foot-tall dam on upper Maroon Creek and storing 9,062 acre-feet of water behind a 170-foot-tall dam on upper Castle Creek.

An engineering analysis done for the city in December concluded the city may need to someday store 8,500 acre-feet of water in a hotter and drier climate to meet all of its municipal demands, including irrigation of the city’s golf course and parks, according to Margaret Medellin, a utilities portfolio manager with the city.

Before it takes the next step in water court and files an application to transfer 8,500 acre-feet of storage rights from Maroon and Castle creeks to Woody Creek, the city wants to reach a settlement agreement with the opposing parties in the two ongoing cases.

According to sources close to the cases, the settlement proposal is based on the premise that the city would commit to moving both potential dams out of the Maroon Creek and Castle Creek valleys.

In exchange, the opposing parties would not be against a future court application to move the storage rights to Woody Creek and other locations outside of the two valleys.

A status conference for the two cases was held in water court Feb. 15 and the water court referee gave the city until March 15 to circulate its latest settlement proposal among the opposing parties, and gave the parties until April 16 to respond to the city’s proposal.

The next status conference in the two cases is set for May 8.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times on the coverage of rivers and water. The Times published a version of this story on Friday, March 2, 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...