A section of upper Castle Creek, which would be inundated by the Castle Creek Reservoir. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

ASPEN – The city of Aspen is embarking on a new “community-based” planning effort to find out how much water the city may need in the future and how best to meet that demand.

The process is also to include a review of water storage options in lieu of moving forward with the potential Maroon and Castle reservoirs, for which the city holds conditional water rights.

“We know there is a lot of expertise in the community,” Margaret Medellin, the city’s utilities portfolio manager told the Aspen City Council on Tuesday during a work session. “We want Aspen to know we are listening. We want to engage.”

Local water stakeholders are expected to be interviewed in the coming weeks by consultants hired by the city from Consensus Building Institute in Cambridge, Mass.

Aspen City Manager Steve Barwick advised council members that the overall water-planning effort could cost “several hundred thousand dollars.”

While the city has already signed a number of contracts with various firms for its new planning efforts, it has not yet hired a consultant to specifically determine future water storage needs and to find out whether it might ever really need to build large dams on Castle and Maroon creeks, as it has recently again told the state it intends to do if necessary.

It’s also not clear why officials feel the need to go beyond a “water supply availability” study completed for the city in June 2016 by Wilson Water Group. That study did not identify a clear need for additional storage facilities.

That study found that “the results of this analysis indicate the city can always provide sufficient potable and raw water supplies under these modeled demand and hydrology scenarios. Existing water supply infrastructure and water rights portfolio developed and managed by the city do not appear to be limiting factors in this evaluation.”

It also said “the results of this study indicate that under historical hydrology conditions, water demands through the next 50 years can be met. However, under specific dry climate change scenarios, the city would be required to implement several tools to curtail water demands in order to fulfill the objectives of providing a reliable water supply for potable, raw, and ISF [insteam flow] purposes. All of the water supply alternatives … are either in place currently or the city is actively working towards bringing them online.”

Those “water supply alternatives” in the report include a new water reuse facility and a deep well, but not either one of the two large potential reservoirs on Castle and Maroon creeks.

The study concludes by noting that “for the 50-year planning window, under the largest growth and driest climate scenario an average monthly ISF deficit of 3.5 cfs is possible, and could be satisfied by increased well pumping.”

After this week’s work session both David Hornbacher, the city’s director of utilities, and council member Art Daily, said that the new water planning effort would seek to find out how much water storage Aspen might actually need in the future.

“We’re going for a community-based approach and that approach includes looking at the future demands and looking at supply alternatives,” Hornbacher 
said. “What is different from the previous report is that we’re engaging a lot of the members in the community and other interested parties to have a lot of input into some of the ideas.”

Daily, who is also a senior partner at the Holland and Hart law firm in Aspen, said the question of “What do we need?” is “the first thing we’re looking at. Definitely.”

“We don’t know what the future is going to require of us, but let’s make some reasonable assumptions about what we might realistically need in the way of storage,” Daily said. “And what alternatives are there to those two reservoirs?”

“That’s just smart planning and thinking,” Daily also said. “We know that the reservoir options are there. But are there better alternatives that have less impact on critical valleys, critical landscapes, private lands and county lands? I don’t know that we’ve in the past ever really closely analyzed what those options are.”

The city has filed two applications in Division 5 water court to extend its conditional water rights tied to the potential Castle and Maroon creek reservoirs, and 10 parties have filed statements of opposition in the two cases, including Pitkin County.

The water rights date to 1965 and the city has yet to undertake a comprehensive and detailed feasibility study of either potential reservoir.

A view from where a dam would stand to form the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

‘Not a very desirable location’

“That was pretty creative thinking 40 years ago,” Daily said, referring to the city’s filing for water rights on Castle and Maroon creeks, during an on-the-record interview in council chambers after Tuesday’s work session.

“We know today it is not a very desirable location to flood – Maroon Creek and that whole drainage,” Daily said. “And the lake and the mountains around it. We would hate to touch any of that. There is no question. And I don’t think anybody in the community feels differently about that.

“But I’m glad we still have those conditional rights. Let’s not give those up until we develop an alternative strategy.

“This is hard stuff. I don’t know exactly how you go about it. I’m no engineer. But I’m glad we’re embarked on the evaluation, the study. We are going to develop a lot of knowledge we don’t have today. And I’m not saying this is easy or inexpensive or anything but it’s critical to the long-term future of our community.”

One of many wetland areas that would be inundated by the potential Castle Creek Reservoir, for which the city holds conditional water rights. A new water planning effort by the city involves studying aspects of the potential reservoir. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Considering climate

During Tuesday’s work session, the council members were told by Ashley Perl, the director of the city’s climate-change program, that “Our lack of [water] storage makes us extremely vulnerable to a changing climate.”

After the meeting, Daily said the city still needs more information to determine how vulnerable it may actually be.

“Part of the study is, what are the realistic climate considerations for us?” Daily said. “None of us have the answers. And none of us want to be excitable or over-reactive. I just want to learn all we can.

“The information we have developed to date, it’s thin. It’s not persuasive yet. I think some of our assumptions are becoming more and more supported by what we’re learning.

“If climate change continues, as it seems to be moving, and I don’t buy Trump’s argument that there is no such thing, then we need to prepare a future where we may have less water. It’s that simple. And I think it is our job to prepare for that as best we can.

“The first thing we’re looking at is how much may we need. And making certain assumptions about the climate and what are our water resources going to look like 30, 40 years from now.

“If we don’t plan for it now, as best we can, with whatever how many years it is going to be, we won’t get it done. And we may not get it done in time. So let’s get on it.

“I think that’s what, really, the whole community is supportive of. It’s a question of exactly how you do it and what are we trying to accomplish and what do we need to know? Those are all good questions.”

A map of the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir, based on the city’s conditional decree. Credit: Source: City of Aspen via Pitkin County GIS
A map of the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir, based on the city’s conditional decree. Credit: Source: City of Aspen via Pitkin County GIS

Listening to opposers

Daily also said he expected the city to listen to the parties who’ve filed statements of opposition in the Castle and Maroon creek water rights cases.

“If they’ve got anything to offer us, I want to hear that too,” Daily said. “And collaboration is critically important in something like this that has such a community impact. You know, we need all the input we can get. We need all the expertise that’s out there. And then we need to develop new expertise.

“It’s a tough process. [But] what I like is, the city – the proponents, and the opponents – they are going to collaborate because they all know that the best possible solution is if everybody’s intellect gets involved at the same time. And ultimately they may continue to oppose and never settle, but let’s find out.

“We’re going to have to work together. And these guys all want a realistic solution and they all want to know, what’s the real assessment of the potential problem?”

A map of the Castle Creek Reservoir, as currently decreed. Credit: Source: City of Aspen via Pitkin County GIS

Hiring consultants

According to a Jan. 27 staff memo from Medellin, the city has recently entered into a contract with Sopris Engineering of Carbondale to “update surveying for Castle Creek Reservoir.”

It also notes that city staff “met with dam and reservoir expert, Terry Arnold, to review existing geological data.”

The memo does not discuss further study of or surveying the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir, which would be built in view of the Maroon Bells.

The city has also entered into a contract with Headwaters Inc. of Utah “to perform a preliminary review of risks in Aspen’s demand and supply through 2065.”

The city has also hired Deere and Ault Consultants to study the feasibility of storing water in old mines in the Aspen area.

The city staff memo said, “consultants Don Deere and Victor DeWolf met with staff and performed [an] on site investigative tour of local mines” on Jan. 26.

On Tuesday staff included several photos of the consultants walking in a dark local mine as part of their presentation to council.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of water and rivers. The Daily News published a shorter version of this story on Feb. 3, 2017.

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...