Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism / Aspen Journalism

Despite being turned down for a Bureau of Reclamation grant, city of Aspen utilities officials say they will move forward on a project to replace the city’s aging water meters.

The city applied for a $271,000 grant from the Bureau of Reclamation to replace 379 — roughly 10% — of the city’s water meters, which were installed before 1987. The old meters are not only potentially inaccurate, they are incompatible with the city’s new advanced metering infrastructure technology.

By replacing the meters, the city estimates it would save about 50 acre-feet of water per year. The average annual water demand in Aspen is about 3,000 acre-feet.

Aspen applied for a WaterSMART water efficiency grant, which provides funding for projects that result in quantifiable water savings and contribute to water supply reliability in the western U.S. The Bureau of Reclamation would have funded half the cost of the meter replacement, but the project was not selected. The Bureau announced in July the 45 grant recipients out of 111 applicants.

WaterNow Alliance, a nonprofit organization that provides support to water leaders and local water utilities, talked with city officials about the grant process, why the project wasn’t selected and what they could do differently next time. Although replacing old water meters is part of the city’s larger overall effort of Aspen Intelligent Metering, 50 acre-feet of water savings probably wasn’t enough to get the grant.

“What we have heard is that the projects that will save the most acre-feet are the ones that are going to be selected,” said Lindsay Rogers, Colorado Basin program manager for WaterNow Alliance. “This grant sort of favors larger utilities.”

A study done for the city by Headwaters Corp. found that the city would need 8,500 acre-feet of storage in a drier future. Aspen Utilities Finance and Administrative Manager Lee Ledesma said the projected 50 acre-feet of savings from the meter replacements would not reduce the city’s need for storage.

“In the big picture, 50 acre-feet compared to what council has recommended for storage is a very small drop,” Ledesma said. “So we don’t see any potential savings from this project as reducing our need for storage. We have a 1% growth in our water accounts every year so it may delay the growth of that.”

Utilities officials say they will apply for other grants to help fund the project. But even if outside money doesn’t come through, officials say they will recommend during the city’s budget process this fall to move forward with replacing the meters.

“We are recommending going forward with it, grant or no grant,” Ledesma said. “I don’t think we want less than 100% implementation on AIM.”

An advantage of the new technology is that it will allow customers to have remote access to data about how much water they use instead of waiting for their monthly bill. This will be especially useful for the roughly 65% of the city’s water customers who don’t live here year-round, Ledesma said.

“If you have more information about what’s actually happening on your property, we really think it’s going to change behavior,” Ledesma said. “It’s going to give the customer enough information to make wiser choices. It’s going to make them feel a little more comfortable when they are out of town.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Aspen Times on coverage of water and rivers. 

Heather Sackett is the managing editor at Aspen Journalism and the editor and reporter on the Water Desk. She has also reported for The Denver Post and the Telluride Daily Planet. Heather has a master’s...