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The map above, marked draft, shows a 200-to-250 acre-foot Osgood Reservoir just below Redstone, as well as the original plan for a 128,728-acre-foot reservoir that would be bigger than Ruedi Reservoir and would put the historic town under water. The map was on display at a public meeting on March 16 between the Colorado River District and the West Divide Water Conservancy District. It was not discussed in public, but presumably was discussed during a two-hour executive session between the two boards.

Pitkin County Attorney John Ely was asked to leave a closed-door session on Wednesday, March 16, so two water district boards could talk about potential dams on the Crystal River without Pitkin County, which sits on one of the boards, in the room.

The Colorado River District holds the conditional water rights for the West Divide Project, which is predicated on taking almost all of the water from the Crystal River and sending it to the dry mesas south of Rifle.

Those water rights are also the reason the West Divide Water Conservancy District, a taxing entity based in Rifle, exists.

There is pressure within Pitkin County for the districts to abandon the water rights for the West Divide Project, especially the rights connected with a 280-foot dam that would put Redstone under water.

The Crystal River Caucus, a recommending body to the Pitkin County commissioners, voted 34-to-0 in January to urge the county to oppose the renewal of the district’s conditional water rights.

In a memo last month, Ely had called the districts’ water storage rights “unrealistic” and said Pitkin County “needs to be prepared to evaluate and oppose this diligence application if appropriate.”

Ely, who represents Pitkin County on the River District board, had expected the dis-invitation at Wednesday’s meeting, held in a hotel conference room near the River District’s Glenwood Springs office.

In the wake of an article by Aspen Journalism that ran in Monday’s Aspen Daily News, West Divide board members had asked the River District to bar him from Wednesday’s executive session, Ely said.

So Ely talked with the River District’s in-house attorney, Peter Fleming, before Wednesday’s meeting. And then at the meeting, Fleming explained the circumstance to the members of the two district boards.

River District bylaws have “a provision about protection of privileges,” Fleming said, which allows for the board to ask other members to recuse themselves from an executive session if they are likely to oppose a position of the larger board.

Because of Pitkin County’s possible opposition to the West Divide Project, Fleming said, Ely “offered to recuse himself from that discussion.”

The River District’s board is made up of representatives from 15 Western Slope counties.

“I talked to Peter before this meeting was convened to ask him what his opinion was as general counsel of the River District as to my continued participation in this particular matter and he made that recommendation to me, which he has just stated,” Ely said moments later. “So, consistent with the River District bylaws, I’m going to recuse myself. I was not anticipating to be voting … and uh, see you guys later.”

Then the two boards went into executive session without Ely to discuss the fate of the upper Crystal River, including two potential dams, the Osgood and Placita reservoirs, both of which would be located in Pitkin County.

The River District must submit a renewal, or “diligence,” for its water rights on the Crystal in May. Its board plans to decide on the scope of that filing in April.

The meeting was called by the River District’s water supply committee, which has to make a recommendation the River District’s full board about an upcoming renewal, or “diligence,” filing for the water rights on the Crystal.

Some of the maps lined up in the basement meeting room during the public meeting showed how some of the reservoirs associated with the West Divide Project would look if built several sizes smaller than the conditional water rights currently call for.

Jim Pokrandt, communications and education manager at the River District, said via email after the executive session that no decisions were made Wednesday about the upcoming diligence filing.

“After delving into a presentation of what the subject water rights in question represent, the boards charged their respective staffs to continue a collaborative study of the options,” Pokrandt said. “As far as the Colorado River District is concerned, a report will be prepared for presentation at our April board meeting. That’s when the final decisions will be made.”

In regard to the maps that showed radically varying sizes of potential reservoirs, Pokrandt released the following statement on March 22:

“The project water rights are being studied for their best value and that includes pulling the elements apart and looking at them from every angle. That is why maps show varying sized configurations. They are conceptual and drawn only for the analysis that is under way. No decision of any kind has been made by either the Colorado River District Board or the West Divide Board. The analysis and weighing of options will continue until a final decision is made by both boards at the April 19-20 Colorado River District board meeting.”

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This draft map shows what a 1,400-acre-foot Placita Reservoir would like look compared to a 62,009-acre-foot reservoir. It was on display at a public meeting on March 16, but not discussed. Both maps in this post are from the Colorado River District.

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...