Opposition likely to Aspen’s conditional water rights on upper Maroon and Castle creeks

A view of the Maroon Bells from just below the confluence of East Maroon and West Maroon creeks, where the City of Aspen has told the state of Colorado it intends - at some point - to build a 155-foot-tall dam. The resulting reservoir would back up 4,567 acre-feet of water and cover 80 acres of USFS land, including a portion of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness
A view of the Maroon Bells from just below the confluence of East Maroon and West Maroon creeks, where the city of Aspen has told the state of Colorado it intends – at some point – to build a 155-foot-tall dam. The resulting reservoir would back up 4,567 acre-feet of water and cover 80 acres of USFS land, including a portion of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

ASPEN – After holding both private and public meetings last week about its conditional water rights for dams and reservoirs on upper Maroon and Castle creeks, the city of Aspen is likely facing opposition in water court if it files a request to extend the water rights for another six years.

“If their diligence filing is consistent with the current project configuration, I do think we will file a statement of opposition,” said Matt Rice, Colorado basin director for American Rivers, a national river conservation organization.

The city has until the end of October to file a due diligence report in Division 5 water court in Glenwood Springs. Such filings are required every six years.

In its September 2009 diligence filing, which was approved in 2010, the city told the water court “it has steadily applied efforts to complete” the dams and reservoirs “in a reasonably expedient and efficient manner.” The city first filed for the conditional water right in 1965 and the conditional rights were formally decreed in 1971.

The view, with a zoom lens, of the Bells from the meadow that would be flooded by a Maroon Creek Reservoir. The meadow is known as the Stein Meadow and the wedding meadow.
The view, with a zoom lens, of the Bells from the meadow that would be flooded by a Maroon Creek Reservoir. The meadow is known as the Stein Meadow and the wedding meadow.

Routine filing?

At a public meeting Thursday a consultant working for the city, Larissa Reed of Common Ground Environmental Consulting LLC, told the gathering of about 35 people that the city’s pending due diligence filing was “routine.”

“City council is not proposing to build water storage reservoirs at this time,” Reed said. “What they are doing is thinking about the conditional water storage rights and whether or not they should be filed for again in October for another six years.“

A work session with city council on the question is to be held in September or October.

Reed then explained some aspects of conditional water rights, including the “can and will” test for proposed water supply projects.

“The phrase ‘can and will’ suggests, in the law, that you have to be making progress towards developing this water supply in order to re-up every six years in your diligence filing,” Reed said. “The idea is that applicants have to show that they are making progress on those water rights, that they’re not just sitting on them doing nothing.”

A view looking down the Castle Creek valley at one of the many wetlands that would be covered by the potential Castle Creek Reservoir. The city of Aspen has told the state it intends to build - at some point - a 170-foot-tall dam that would stretch about 1,000 feet across the Castle Creek valley and back up 9,062 acre-feet of water, inundating 112 acres of public and private land.
A view looking down the Castle Creek valley at one of the many wetlands that would be covered by the potential Castle Creek Reservoir. The city of Aspen has told the state it intends to build – at some point – a 170-foot-tall dam that would stretch about 1,000 feet across the Castle Creek valley and back up 9,062 acre-feet of water, inundating 112 acres of public and private land.

Can and will?

Since 1965, the city has consistently told the state it intends – at some point – to build a 155-foot-tall dam at the confluence of East and West Maroon creeks that would store 4,567 acre-feet of water behind it and build a 170-foot-tall dam on Castle Creek that would back-up 9,062 acre-feet of water.

The city has not undertaken feasibility or cost studies of the dams and reservoirs since filing for the water rights, although the Bureau of Reclamation did conduct limited test drilling on the Castle Creek dam site in 1970.

Nor has the city determined how much water storage it actually might need in the future, or what other storage locations might be feasible, according to David Hornbacher, the city’s director of utilities and environmental initiatives.

Castle Creek, not far below Ashcroft. This section of river would be covered by a potential Castle Creek Reservoir.
Castle Creek, not far below Ashcroft. This section of water would be covered by a potential Castle Creek Reservoir.

Facilitated sessions

On Wednesday, the city held a private stakeholders meeting about the conditional water rights with representatives from American Rivers, Wilderness Workshop, Roaring Fork Conservancy, Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, the Colorado River District, U.S. Forest Service, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

The formats of both the private stakeholders meeting and Thursday’s public meetings were the same, with remarks from the consultant and Hornbacher, limited time for questions, and then facilitated small-group discussions focused on questions crafted by the city.

“I’m hopeful that they will take this public input and present it to the council in an unbiased and accurate fashion,” said Rice of American Rivers, who attended Wednesday’s stakeholder meeting, “but if the city moves forward with due diligence for a reservoir on Maroon Creek and a reservoir on Castle Creek, we intend to stand up for those rivers and those wild places and oppose.”

When asked if American Rivers was prepared to take its opposition to a level of active litigation in water court, which typically comes after a lengthy period of time when parties are asked by the court to work out their differences in private meetings, Rice said he hoped it wouldn’t go that far.

“I would hope that it would give the city an opportunity to investigate real alternatives to this project to meet their future water supply needs,” he said of discussions during the initial phase of the process. “One thing that a statement of opposition in a diligence filing does is that inspires those discussions at a quicker pace than would happen otherwise.”

American Rivers filed a statement of opposition in response to a diligence filing in 2011 from the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the West Divide Water Conservancy District for conditional water rights for two large dams on the Crystal River.

The River District and the West Divide District agreed to abandon those water rights in 2013.

Pitkin County also filed a statement of opposition against the Crystal River conditional water rights and took an active role in the proceedings.

After Thursday’s public meeting on the rights on Maroon and Castle creeks, Laura Makar, an assistant county attorney for Pitkin County, said the county had not yet decided if it would oppose a diligence filing by the city.

“We don’t have a position at this point in time,” Makar said. “The diligence filing is not due until October. Any statement of opposition would not be due until December. We’re in August right now, so I anticipate we’ll have a position at some point.”

In a small bit of irony, there is a two-foot-tall beaver dam just below the location where Aspen has told the state it intends to build a 155-foot-tall dam - some day.
In a small bit of irony, there is a 2-foot-tall beaver dam just below the location where Aspen has told the state it intends to build a 155-foot-tall dam – someday.

Dueling statements

Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards, a former mayor of Aspen, attended Thursday’s meeting. She said during the small-group discussions that she thought it was “premature” for the city to abandon its conditional rights for the dams and reservoirs.

Will Roush, a conservation advocate for Wilderness Workshop, attended both the private stakeholders meeting and the public meeting.

When asked Friday if Wilderness Workshop intended to oppose the diligence filing, Roush said, “We’ll make that decision once they decide whether or not to file a diligence filing,” but also said his organization wants Aspen to abandon the water rights.

Paul Noto, a water attorney at Patrick, Miller, Noto who fought the city’s proposed hydropower plant on lower Castle Creek on behalf of a group of local clients, was asked if he expected someone to file a statement of opposition if the city filed.

“It’s not a question of someone, it is a question of how many,” Noto said. “There is going to be a lot of opposition to this project. The reason is Aspenites, and others, hold Castle and Maroon creek valleys near and dear to their hearts and I think a lot of people passionately believe, rightly so, that there shouldn’t be dams in those valleys.”

Rob Harris, the senior staff attorney at Western Resource Advocates of Boulder, also was at Thursday’s meeting. Afterward, he was critical of the city’s dueling messages about its intentions for the dams and reservoirs.

“The city can’t and shouldn’t say different things to the public that it says to the water court,” Harris said. “The city shouldn’t come in here, to this public meeting, and say, ‘We don’t really have any plans to build these dams’ and then go into the water court and say, ‘We can and will build these reservoirs.’ Those are two different, inconsistent, statements.”

He also challenged the way the city made it sound that climate change made the dams necessary.

Ashley Perl, the director of the city’s Canary Initiative, had presented climate projections at the meeting that showed less water would likely be in Aspen-area rivers in a hotter future. She said that Aspen doesn’t have any water storage facilities, which made it vulnerable, and that the community needed to have a conversation about storage.

But Harris said, “It is important to note that nothing we saw tonight connected any of those water availability scenarios under those climate models to actual water needs that the city of Aspen has. There was nothing presented tonight that showed that in any of those scenarios that Aspen would in fact be short of water.”

Harris added, “If the city does identify a water need, they have lots of other alternatives” than the dams and reservoirs.

The city has set up an email address for citizens to send comments and questions about the conditional water rights, at waterrights@cityofaspen.com, until Aug. 19.

One of the many wetlands in the area that would be covered by a Castle Creek Reservoir.
One of the many wetlands in the area that would be covered by a Castle Creek Reservoir.

Regional reservoirs and dams, ranked by normal storage capacity

During a public meeting on Aug. 4, 2016, the city of Aspen presented a graphic comparing the surface area of various regional reservoirs with the surface area of the proposed Castle and Maroon creek reservoirs.

We’ve expanded the list, added more criteria, ranked it by storage capacity, and used data from the Colorado Dept. of Dam Safety, including their term of “normal storage” for the storage capacity amount.

For Castle and Maroon, which the city labeled in their presentation as “proposed,” we’ve simply used “storage capacity.”

AF means “acre feet.” There are 325,851 gallons of water in an acre-foot.

Ruedi Reservoir
Normal storage: 102,369 AF
Dam height: 291 feet
Dam length: 1,060 feet
Surface area: 998 acres

Homestake Reservoir
Normal storage: 42,900 AF
Dam height: 231 feet
Dam length: 1,996 feet
Surface area: 333 acres

Paonia Reservoir
Normal storage: 20,950 AF
Dam height: 199 feet
Dam length: 770 feet
Surface area: 334 acres

Rifle Gap Reservoir
Normal storage: 13,602 AF
Dam height: 124 feet
Dam length: 1,450 feet
Surface area: 359 acres

Proposed Castle Creek Reservoir
Storage capacity: 9,062 AF
Dam height: 170 feet
Dam length: Approx. 1,000 feet
Surface area: 112 acres

Proposed Maroon Creek Reservoir
Storage capacity: 4,567 AF
Dam height: 155 feet
Dam length: Approx. 1,500 feet
Surface area: 80 acres

Spring Park Reservoir
Normal storage: 1,732 AF
Dam height: 20 feet
Dam length: 1,645 feet
Surface area: 258 acres

Wildcat Reservoir
Normal storage: 1,100 AF
Dam height: 75 feet
Dam length: 1,100 feet
Surface area: 50 acres

Ivanhoe Reservoir
Normal storage: 752 AF
Dam height: 16 feet
Dam length: 270 feet
Surface area: 82 acres

Grizzly Reservoir
Normal storage: 590 AF
Dam height: 56 feet
Dam length: 792 feet
Surface area: 44 acres

Dinkle Lake
Normal storage: 460 AF
Dam height: 40 feet
Dam length: 580 feet
Surface area: 20 acres

Ziegler Reservoir
Normal storage: 248 AF
Dam height: 28 feet
Dam length: 500 feet
Surface area: 16 acres

Chapman Reservoir
Normal storage: 100 acre feet
Dam height: 37 feet
Dam length: 160 feet
Surface area: 10 acres

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Daily News, and Coyote Gulch are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. The Daily News published this story on Monday, August 8, 2016.

The latest briefing from Western Water Assessment is hot off the presses

Upper Colorado River Basin July 2016 precipitation as a percent of normal via the Colorado Climate Center.
Upper Colorado River Basin July 2016 precipitation as a percent of normal via the Colorado Climate Center.

From the Western Water Assessment:

A highlights-only Monthly “Micro-Briefing” was posted today on the Intermountain West Climate Dashboard. These highlights, also provided below, cover July’s precipitation and temperatures, drought conditions, April-July Lake Powell inflows, and ENSO outlook.

Highlights:

  • July was another hotter-than-normal and drier-than-normal month for the region, though not quite as hot or dry as June. Most the region saw less than 70% of normal precipitation, while several areas had much-above-normal precipitation. Northern Utah and southern Wyoming were the driest parts of the region.
  • Drought conditions have expanded in Wyoming and Utah, with abnormally dry (D0) or worse conditions now covering more than 55% of both states. The 2-week and 4-week EDDI maps indicate that during July, the atmosphere was unusually thirsty over most of Wyoming and nearly all of Utah, pointing to the potential for more further drought onset and intensification.
  • Observed inflows to Lake Powell for April through July ended up at about 6630 KAF (93% of average and 102% of median), the third year in a row with inflows of 90-100% of average, following the the extreme drought years of 2012 and 2013.
  • According to ENSO model forecasts , a transition from the current ENSO-neutral to La Niña conditions during the coming fall and winter is still favored, but the likelihood has slipped since last month, to about 60%.
  • View the Intermountain West Climate Dashboard on the Western Water Assessment website.

    #ColoradoRiver: Aspinall Unit operations update #COriver — 1,000 cfs in Black Canyon

    Sunrise Black Canyon via Bob Berwyn
    Sunrise Black Canyon via Bob Berwyn

    From email from Reclamation (Eric Knight):

    Releases from Crystal Dam will be decreased from 2000 cfs to 1800 cfs on Wednesday, August 10th. July inflows to Blue Mesa Reservoir ended up being less than predicted and August inflow forecasts are also declining. The April-July runoff volume finished the season at 89% of average. The current content of Blue Mesa Reservoir is 757,000 acre-feet which is 91% full.

    Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. Flows are expected to remain above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

    Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for August through December.

    Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are around 1000 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 1000 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be at 1000 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon should be around 800 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

    ERWC: The latest “The Current” newsletter is hot off the presses

    Macro Invertebrates via Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge Water Quality Research
    Macro Invertebrates via Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge Water Quality Research

    Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

    We had a wonderful time with Beaver Creek Summer Day Camp, bug sampling on Gore Creek and learning about different types of macroinvertebrates. Stoneflies and mayflies galore! Looking for a fun, engaging, and educational way to get kids on the river during the summer? Email schoder@erwc.org for inquiries!

    NOAA: July warmer than average, year to date 3rd warmest for Lower 48

    Here’s the release from NOAA:

    July’s reputation for sizzle didn’t disappoint, bringing record warm temperatures to Florida and New Mexico and much above-average temperatures across the South, the East Coast and Alaska.

    The average July temperature for the contiguous U.S. was 75.3 degrees F, making it the 14th warmest July on record, according to scientists from NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. July precipitation averaged 2.87 inches (0.40 inch above average).

    From January through July, the average temperature for the Lower 48 states ranked as the third warmest on record at 54.3 degrees F, 3.0 degrees above average. Thirty-eight states were much warmer than average.

    significantevents072016noaa

    Other notable climate events for July included:

  • Alaska: Alaska had its 4th warmest July and set a new record for the warmest year to date, with an average statewide temperature of 33.9 degrees F, 8.1 degrees above average.
  • New Mexico: New Mexico set a new heat record with an average temperature of 76.8 degrees F, 4.1 degrees above average. This also tied July 2003 as the warmest month of any month on record.
  • Florida: Florida was record warm for the month, reaching an average temperature of 84.0 degree F, 3.0 degrees above average. This was the second warmest month of any month on record.
  • Kentucky: Parts of western Kentucky received record rainfall totaling more than 16 inches and causing widespread flooding.
  • Hawaii: On July 24, Tropical Storm Darby made landfall on Hawaii’s Big Island with sustained winds of 40 mph and heavy rains in excess of 10 inches.
  • U.S. drought: By month’s end, 21.1 percent of the contiguous U.S. was in drought, up about 4.9 percent since end of June.
  • More: Find NOAA’s reports and download images by visiting the NCEI website.

    The latest #CWCB Confluence newsletter is hot off the presses

    Pueblo dam releases
    Pueblo dam releases

    Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

    What you missed at the CWCB July Board meeting in Steamboat Springs…

  • Our newest Board member, Jim Yahn, was sworn in to represent the South Platte River Basin. Jim is the manager of the North Sterling and Prewitt Reservoirs where he oversees the diversion and distribution of water to over 350 farmers.
  • Carlee Brown attended her first Board meeting as the new Section Chief for the Interstate, Federal, and Water Information Section. Previously, Carlee was the Policy Advisor for water at the Western Governors’ Association (WGA), where she led WGA’s bipartisan efforts on drought, the Clean Water Act, water data, and groundwater.
  • The implementation of Colorado’s Water Plan is in full swing. Some highlights:

  • Distributed over $5M in WSRF funds from statewide and basin accounts since the beginning of November 2015. This $5m has been successfully leveraged against over $25M in matching contributions.
  • CWCB staff are working with other stakeholders to provide water loss trainings statewide over the next few years. These trainings will update water managers on proper water loss reporting and accounting.
  • A LEAN event was held between the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), and local regulators, such as the Northwest Council of Governments (NWCOG) to improve the efficiency of the permitting process. Water providers and environmental groups were also involved. Stakeholders are creating a Permitting Handbook.
  • The CWCB Board and staff have developed a creative funding plan for up to five years, in its conception phase, that proposes:

  • $50 million one-time investment in a repayment guarantee fund
  • $10 million annually to the WSRF
  • $5 million annually to the Watershed Restoration Program
  • $10 million annually to non-reimbursable programs
  • The Non Native Fish Subcommittee is working to reduce non native fish populations through education, outreach, and harvest incentives. In the Ridgway Reservoir, the Smallmouth Bass adult population has been reduced by 36 percent.
  • Instream flow water rights have been decreed on Alkali Creek, Armstrong Creek, Brush Creek, East Douglas Creek, Schaefer Creek, Terror Creek, and Timber Springs Gulch, totaling 22 miles in length.
  • The Board approved a loan to the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District for the Pueblo Dam Hydroelectric Project. This is the first phase of the Arkansas Valley Conduit project, which was a part of the original Fryingpan-Arkansas project signed by President Kennedy in 1962. The Board also approved a loan to the North Poudre Irrigation Company for rehabilitation of the Livermore Irrigation Tunnel. This project will help to ensure continued deliveries to more than 36 square miles of irrigated acreage.
  • The Board approved seven WSRF grants at this meeting, totaling $270,572.
  • Longmont councillors weighing cash v. debt for Windy Gap participation

    Map from Northern Water via the Fort Collins Coloradan.
    Map from Northern Water via the Fort Collins Coloradan.

    From the Longmont Times-Call (Karen Antonacci):

    The Longmont City Council on Tuesday will make several high-level decisions on how to finance the Windy Gap Firming Project.

    In March, the council opted for the costlier 10,000 acre-foot level of the $387.36 million project, which would bring the pricetag for Longmont up to about $47 million. In April, the council directed they would prefer to pay with cash rather than debt for the $47 million, which would save money in the long-term but mean steep rate hikes in the short-term.

    Now, staff has come back with a third option — a mix of cash and debt financing.

    The council has already approved and codified raises to rates of 9 percent in both 2017 and 2018. If the council chose to finance the complete $47 million through rate increases, rates would need to rise 21 percent in 2017 and 22 percent in 2018, staff wrote to council in a memo.

    But, raising rates is a little unpredictable for staff, because people might use less water in order to save money. While that helps with the city’s water conservation goals, it could make financing a huge project like Windy Gap tough.

    “What we do know is that if we have a rate increase, it dampens consumption because people do react to an increased cost. What we’ve seen over time is that initial reaction tends to go away over time,” said Dale Rademacher, general manager of Longmont public resources and natural works…

    By contrast, if Longmont chose to finance the $47 million project with $16.7 million in bonds, rates would not increase beyond the planned 9 percent in 2017 and then by 14 percent in 2018 and another 14 percent in 2019. The downside to debt is that it costs more in the long-term.

    At a projected 4.25 percent interest rate, bonding out $16.7 million would cost the city $55.75 million over 20 years.

    In the middle, staff has proposed bonding out only $6 million of the cost and financing the rest through rate increases.

    This option would mean rate increases of 17 percent each in 2017 and 2018, between the two extremes of 21 percent with all cash and 9 percent with the higher debt option.

    Rademacher said council could choose to bond out $6 million of the cost without a vote of the public…

    Council on Tuesday needs to decide which financing option they want, and by extension, how much rates should raise in 2017.

    Rademacher said all the rate raises are projected to happen by January 1, 2017 and if a major bonding issue needed to go to the ballot, staff are projecting to put it in front of voters in November, 2017.

    Council could also decide to wait on the financing decision and get more public feedback on the issue. While there were questions related to Windy Gap on the regular Longmont resident survey, staff decided to remove those questions and ask council about a more specific survey.

    National Research Center submitted a bid in order to survey Longmont residents about whether they would prefer to pay cash or debt for Windy Gap. To do an online-only survey would cost $3,440. To mail out a survey to randomly selected households would cost between $5,130 and $11,850 depending if NRC targeted 800, 1,500 or 3,000 households.