The Crystal River flowing through the Placita area in late winter. The old townsite is located just off Highway 133 below McClure Pass.
The Crystal River flowing through the Placita area in late winter. The old townsite is located just off Highway 133 below McClure Pass.Smith Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

In an effort to squelch the possibility of a dam being built at Placita on the Crystal River, the Pitkin County commissioners voted Wednesday to file a statement of opposition in water court against the Colorado River District and the West Divide Water Conservancy District.

The two regional water districts have asked the court to adjust a bundle of conditional water rights tied to the West Divide Project, which the districts have kept in their long-term plans for 50 years.

And while the districts have walked away from two mammoth dams once envisioned on the Crystal River at Redstone and Placita, they have told a court judge they still intend to build – someday – a small dam at Placita, once the site of a mine and a little town downstream from Marble.

The proposed Placita dam would back up 4,000 acre-feet of water. The prior Placita dam would have held back 62,000 acre-feet.

The board members of the districts voted in April to drop the idea of building both the large Placita dam and the Osgood dam, which would have flooded Redstone.

But the district boards still voted to file a revised portfolio of conditional water rights with the state water court in Glenwood Springs, including the 4,000 acre-foot Placita Reservoir, which would release 150 cubic feet per second of water for hydro power.

The districts also are seeking conditional water rights for the Avalanche Canal and Siphon, which would carry 250 cfs of water from Avalanche Creek. And they seek to build a 5,000 acre-foot reservoir on Yank Creek, along with the Fourmile Canal.

The Colorado River District has said that the two small dams in the Crystal River drainage would help keep water in the lower Crystal River in late summer and that water from the Placita Reservoir could also be used to generate hydro power.

The resolution approved by the county states that “the scope of the conditional rights in the Crystal River valley is significant and the county has serious concerns as to whether as proposed, the project is appropriate in size, location, scope, practicality, need and likelihood of actual completion. The districts do not appear to have the ability or inclination to develop the project.”

Pitkin County has a seat on the Colorado River District board and John Ely, the county attorney, represents the county at the district’s meetings in Glenwood. On Wednesday, he advised the county commissioners to file the statement of opposition against the River District.

“Since the drought of 2002, continuing old conditional water rights has been met with increased scrutiny by the State Water Engineer,” Ely told the commissioners in a memo. “Further, recent Supreme Court decisions have emphasized that conditional water rights will probably not survive if the projects they are associated with are too speculative in nature.”

Ely also warned that “the value of valuable storage sites has increased. Although the districts neither appear to have the ability or inclination to develop the project, the right could be transferred to an entity that might actually construct the facilities.”

Commissioner Jack Hatfield thought the time was right to oppose keeping the conditional water rights alive.

“I would be willing to allocate whatever resources are necessary to get this done and end this,” Hatfield said. “Regardless of their adjustment, even as large as it might be, this really seems more like speculation and an investment to continue – maybe they can sell it – as opposed to some real practical need.”

Commissioner George Newman said the Crystal River is one of the last rivers in Colorado without a dam on it.

“This action I think will hopefully maintain the Crystal as a free-flowing river and down the road perhaps have the opportunity to designate some part of that wild and scenic as well,” Newman said.

Commissioners Rachel Richards, Rob Ittner and Micheal Owsley also voted in favor of the resolution.

Earlier this month, the county’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Board also voted unanimously to oppose the water rights filing.

A joint statement released on Wednesday by the water districts, in response to the commissioner’s vote, said “the West Divide Water Conservancy District and the Colorado River District expected the Pitkin County decision and we will respond at an appropriate time.”

Below is the memo from Wednesday’s meeting embedded in a Document Cloud reader, which has a zoom function for better readability. The attached draft resolution was tweaked slightly during the meeting, but not substantially. An earlier press release from the Colorado River District about the decision to abandon certain conditional water rights, and try to retain others, is attached to the memo.

[documentcloud id=”228352-west-divide-project-opposition”]

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...