Aspen changing course on conditional water rights?

The Maroon Bells from the meadow just above the confluence of East and West Maroon creeks, and the location of the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir.

ASPEN – Aspen city officials plan to reveal this week a proposal that seeks to resolve some of the issues raised by its efforts to maintain conditional water storage rights tied to potential dams and reservoirs on upper Castle and Maroon creeks.

Last week the city approved money to study underground storage, looked into how much water storage it needs, and responded in water court to a previous filing. In the past month, city officials also have met with a number of opponents in the water case.

“Things are changing rather quickly regarding the current diligence cases,” Aspen City Manager Steve Barwick said Friday, referring to the two ongoing due diligence cases now unfolding in Division 5 water court. “I expect a completely different discussion will be taking place within one week.”

Barwick also said he and other city staff members “have a great deal of work to do toward that outcome” and he expects to hold a news conference by Friday about the city’s proposal.

As presently decreed, the Maroon Creek Reservoir would store 4,567 acre-feet of water behind a 155-foot-tall dam a mile and a half below Maroon Lake. The Castle Creek Reservoir would hold 9,062 acre-feet behind a 170-tall-reservoir on the main stem of Castle Creek 2 miles below Ashcroft.

The city originally filed for the water rights in 1965 and has periodically told the state it intends to build the dams and reservoirs, if necessary, as part of its municipal water system.

The city filed its most recent applications for due diligence Oct. 31 and is seeking to hold on to its conditional rights for another six years.

City officials do not appear to have tipped their hand to the opposing parties in the cases about the substance of this week’s announcements.

“I really don’t know what the city will present at its big announcement,” said Rob Harris, senior staff attorney at Western Resource Advocates, who recently met with city officials on potential alternatives to the reservoirs, along with a representative from Wilderness Workshop of Carbondale. “I’m assuming that this will be more in the nature of the city announcing its preferred solution, or some part thereof, rather than any sort of finalized deal with any of the parties.

“Whatever they present, the follow-up questions we’re going to be asking include whether their idea moves Castle and Maroon creeks upstream of Aspen closer to permanent protection and, if their idea involves moving any or all of the water rights, what the potential impacts and benefits of that change will be,” Harris said.

The environmental organizations opposing the city in water court also include Colorado Trout Unlimited and American Rivers.

“What would not make us happy is if they said, ‘We will significantly downsize these reservoirs but keep them in the same place,'” said Matt Rice, director of American River’s Colorado River basin program, during an interview in late June. “We’re hopeful they are coming around to the impossibility of developing those projects in the two valleys, and what that means for this diligence, and that they are getting realistic about more-appropriately sized projects that can help them meet their water supply needs.”

Rice also said that Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron met with Bob Irvin, the president and CEO of American Rivers, on June 21 at city hall for 45 minutes.

“It was an opportunity to extend an olive branch of sorts and commit to working toward a resolution to this issue in good faith,” said Rice.

The city has scheduled a second settlement conference for Aug. 2 with the 10 opposing parties in the water rights cases.

A view of the Aspen municipal golf course from Red Butte. A consulting engineer for the city of Aspen has found that an ‘in-situ’ reservoir could likely be built to store water under the golf course, which sits on about 75 feet of glacially-deposited rock and gravel. A trench filled in with a clay-like material could be dug around the perimeter of the golf course and water could be poured into the open space in the remaining gravel, and pumped back out as necessary.

Golf course option?

On Monday the city council approved a $116,000 contract with the engineering firm of Deere and Ault of Longmont to drill test bores and dig exploratory pits on the course at the Aspen Golf Club as part of a feasibility study of an in-situ, or underground reservoir.

Such an “in-situ” reservoir would likely hold about 1,200 acre-feet of water, according to a preliminary investigation done by Deere and Ault.

Deere and Ault now plans to drill up to six test bores through what is estimated to be 75-feet of gravel under the golf course, and to dig up to eight pits, of undisclosed size, to analyze the soil and gravel conditions.

City Engineer Trish Aragon said this week that a construction management plan will be required by the city’s engineering department for any drilling work that goes deeper than 50 feet.

And a permit would be required if the excavation pits disturb more than 200 square feet of surface area.

Aragon, after checking with officials at the city’s water department, said it has not yet been determined when, or where, the drilling or digging will take place.

The members of the Aspen City Council on Monday, July 10, 2017. From left, Bert Myrin, Ward Hauenstein, Mayor Steve Skadron, Ann Mullins, and Adam Frisch.

In water court

On the same day the city council approved further investigations on the golf course, the city’s water attorney, Cindy Covell of Alperstein and Covell in Denver, submitted a required response to a “summary of consultation” report filed by the division engineer in Division 5, Alan Martellaro, on January 23.

In a July 10 letter Covell told Materellaro that Aspen “understands that it must meet the required burden of proof at trial,” but otherwise she left the concerns of the state officials unaddressed.

The report, prepared after consulting with water referee Susan Ryan, challenged the core of Aspen’s applications for the dam and reservoir rights.

“I cannot recommend approval of this application until the following concerns are addressed,” Martello’s report began, in a standard opening line for such reports.

The first concern cited was about the phrase “other beneficial uses” in the city’s claims to maintain its conditional storage rights, which carry a 1971 decree date.

And the second concern was whether Aspen’s applications meet key tests in a due diligence case.

“Regarding the ‘can and will’ and the ‘anti-speculation’ doctrines,” Martellaro wrote, “the applicant must demonstrate” that it will secure necessary permits and land use approvals, that it will complete the projects “within a reasonable time,” that a “specific plan is in place to develop the subject water rights,” and that the city “is not speculating with the subject water rights.”

The issues raised by the state officials are much the same as those raised by the ten opposing parties in the two cases.

The parties, in addition to the four environmental organizations, include Pitkin County, the United State Forest Service, and four private landowners.

Two of the landowners own property in the Maroon Creek valley, Thomas and Margot Pritzker and Marcella Larsen and her family. And two own property in the Castle Creek valley, Robert Y.C. Ho and Charles Somer.

“I think the division engineer raised some serious concerns that are entirely consistent with ours,” Rice of American Rivers said in late June. “We would appreciate it if they would answer the core questions.”

But the city chose not to do that this week.

The questions raised in the summary of consultation remain open in the case, however, and may be addressed in the future by the water referee or at trial, as Covell suggested.

The location of the potential Maroon Creek dam and reservoir, just below the confluence of East and West Maroon creeks.

Supply and uncertainty

On Tuesday the city council got an update on a risk analysis being conducted by Headwaters Corp. of Nebraska regarding the city’s future water supply and demand equation.

George Oamek, the economist who is preparing the study, submitted a preliminary report to the city on July 3, in an effort to help the city council determine how much will they need in the future and where they should store it.

He told the council that in order to complete his risk analysis, he and the council members are going to have make a number of assumptions about “uncertain variables.”

He said the data recorded by now defunct stream gages on Castle and Maroon creeks from 1970 to 1994 was insufficient for his analysis, although the 24 years of data has been the basis of several other in-depth water supply and demand studies done for the city.

He said that available climate data would be hard to use to predict local conditions.

And he recommended using land use projections in Aspen and Pitkin County to determine future water demand, as opposed to the standard methodology of using population projections.

Oamek also presented a pie chart to the council that illustrated the varying degrees of uncertainty presented by each of those areas.

About 70 percent of the uncertainty, and thus required assumptions, is in the area of climate change, he said, while 20 percent was related to the gaps in the data about flows in the creek, and ten percent was tied to demand projections.

Oamek told the city council members that he was relying on them for assumptions about land use and population.

Margaret Medellin, a utilities portfolio manager for the city, told the council that Tuesday’s meeting on the Headwaters study was not the last.

“This is just the first of many conversations,” she said. “We’ll be coming back to council for quite some time.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is an independent nonprofit news organization collaborating with The Aspen Times on coverage of rivers and water. The Times published a shorter version of this story on Monday, July 17, 2017.

Steamboat Springs: @COWaterCongress Summer Conference, August 22-24

The Yampa River Core Trail runs right through downtown Steamboat. Photo credit City of Steamboat Springs.

Click here to go to the website for all the inside skinny.

@ColoradoStateU: Investments in conservation easements reap benefits for #Colorado

Colorado’s diverse landscape has a rich natural and agricultural heritage that fuels the economy. Photo: Michael Menefee

Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Mary Guiden):

Colorado is famous for its iconic landscapes, which have helped shape the state’s identity and economy. From agriculture to recreation and tourism, from minerals and fuels to forest and wildlife, Coloradans are dependent on nature for many things that enrich our lives.

Not surprisingly, state officials have repeatedly identified conservation of the state’s natural and agricultural lands as sound public policy. This includes providing incentives for conservation easements. These are legally binding agreements between private landowners and nonprofit land trusts or government to protect conservation values of a property.

A new analysis from Colorado State University found that each dollar invested by the state for these easements produced benefits of between $4 and $12 for Coloradans. Public benefits include clean water and air, scenic views, access to things produced by local farms and ranches products, and wildlife habitat: all things that contribute to a high quality of life in the state. Researchers said these data show that easements are conserving land that is important for wildlife, agriculture, tourism and outdoor recreation for Colorado’s visitors and residents alike.

Conservation easements protect specific conservation values of a property, such as wildlife habitat. Photo: Michael Menefee

“There is a substantial return to the Colorado taxpayer on investments in programs designed to conserve the features of the Colorado landscape that are so dear to all of us,” said Andrew Seidl, one of the study authors and a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at CSU.

Based on the new analysis, the CSU research team found the investments from the state programs conserve:

  • More than 114,450 acres of preliminary priority habitat for greater sage grouse
  • Nearly 300,000 acres of prime farmland
  • 250 miles along designated scenic byways
  • More than 4,100 miles of streams, creeks and rivers
  • More than 270,000 acres of habitat used by elk during severe winter conditions
  • The state programs have invested nearly $1.1 billion on conservation easements since 1995, according to the new analysis. CSU researchers — who examined data on 2.1 million acres of Colorado lands with conservation easements — said the related benefits for state residents are as high as $13.7 billion.

    The study focused on Colorado’s investments in conservation easements funded through a tax credit program and Great Outdoors Colorado. The voter-approved program uses a portion of lottery proceeds to help with efforts to protect wildlife habitat, river corridors, productive agricultural lands, iconic scenic views. It has also created trails and open spaces for Coloradans to enjoy.

    Colorado is famous for its iconic landscapes. Photo: Michael Menefee

    Study co-author Michael Menefee, an environmental review coordinator with CSU’s Colorado Natural Heritage Program, said the investments are filling a vital need for conservation of identified priorities on private lands. “An active partnership between private landowners and public policy can achieve what neither acting alone can accomplish,” he added.

    The Colorado Office of the State Auditor released an analysis in December 2016 concluding, among other findings, that it was difficult for the public and policymakers to determine the benefits from the conservation easement program. But this new study used a more robust data set from the Colorado Ownership, Management and Protection (COMaP) database, the state’s most comprehensive map of protected lands.

    COMaP started as a Geographic Information System research project in CSU’s Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology in 2004. Since then, it has evolved into an important tool for those around the state with an interest in privately and publicly protected lands.

    “Easements are the primary tool in Colorado for conserving these many benefits while still maintaining land in private ownership – often as working farms and ranches,” said Drew Bennett, study co-author and a postdoctoral fellow at CSU.

    The study’s authors will present their findings later this month at a hearing of the Colorado General Assembly’s Legislative Audit Committee. Committee members will review the programs and consider potential changes.

    The study was funded by Robert L. Tate, a longtime supporter of and donor to the Warner College of Natural Resources and Colorado State University.

    Clearas’ process uses algae to remove phosphorus and nitrogen from wastewater plant effluent

    From The Missoulian (David Erickson):

    Formed eight years ago, the company has developed a patented process to use algae to remove nitrogen and phosphorous from public wastewater treatment plants, keeping waterways from being inundated with the compounds that starve fish and plant life of oxygen. In turn, the algae can be sold to other companies for fertilizer, biofuels and other uses.

    Think of it as high tech farming.

    As the global population skyrockets, nitrogen and phosphorous pollution is becoming a significant environmental concern. Often referred to as “nutrient loading,” these two elements cause algal blooms in lakes and rivers that create “dead zones” that devastate vegetation and animals.

    Clearas officials say they have found a way to harness Mother Nature’s own solution to nutrient loading in a different way, making it a beneficial process that makes money instead of an ecological nightmare.

    Sewage contains high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous, and those two elements happen to be what algae, the fastest-growing plant on the planet, likes to eat.

    Phosphorous and nitrogen are in demand from the agriculture sector for their use as fertilizers. So rather than having life-killing algae in nature’s waterways, the nutrients can be put to use in corn fields.

    “I think the simplest way to describe what we do is to say that we take harmful constituents out of the wastewater prior to discharge into our rivers, lakes and streams, and we do it biologically sustainably,” explained company CEO Jordan Lind.

    There are other technologies for removing those nutrients, but they often involve chemical treatment.

    Clearas formed as a company when algae farmers in the Bitterroot Valley wanted phosphorous and nitrogen from Missoula’s wastewater treatment facility to feed their biofuel. Lind recalls that the head of the wastewater facility told them they could take as much wastewater as they wanted for free, a much better alternative than buying synthetic nitrogen.

    It was a “eureka” moment. Kevin McGraw, the company’s co-founder and operations manager, realized that they could develop a technology to harness wastewater’s nutrients to grow a valuable product while doing public utilities a favor…

    The company developed a testing facility at Missoula’s wastewater treatment plant on North Reserve. A series of tubes feed 15,000 gallons of wastewater per day through algae and return it to the Clark Fork River much cleaner than it was before.

    The company recently landed a contract to implement their Advanced Biological Nutrient Recovery technology at a Utah municipality called the South Davis Sewer District, which will be a 4-million-gallon-per-day system.

    Lind said Montana has relatively lax environmental regulations on what wastewater facilities can discharge, but in other places tighter regulations mean that more and more cities will look to this technology…

    In fact, some of the explosions of bright green algae that can be found in the Clark Fork River and other bodies of water across the country in the summer are caused by too much nitrogen and phosphorous from agriculture runoff, laundry detergents and other sources.

    The beauty, Lind says, is that Clearas is recovering the resource rather than just removing it. They have centrifugal machines that can turn the algae into whatever consistency a customer needs, whether it’s a watery sludge for fertilizing a field or a dry cake for making plastics or fuels.

    “There’s lots of potential co-products that result from the treatment process,” Lind said. “So you truly are going waste-to-value. And that’s kind of the new trend in our space. All these municipalities and large industrial plants that have wastewater, there’s value in that waste. The question is how you convert it. And our method is a proven way to do that.”

    Lind said there is a lot of interest in the company’s technology in the Great Lakes region, in Europe and in Asia…

    The Utah contract is the first of what the company hopes will be a long line of dominoes to fall. In essence, they hope that once one municipality sees the technology working, then others will hop on board.

    It’s a little more complicated because taxpayer funds have to be used to upgrade wastewater treatment plants. However, they have high hopes. Right now, the company employs about three dozen people, and they have acquired an engineering firm to deal with helping cities implement the technology.

    Andy Gordon, the company’s market development manager, said he believes the technology could transform the world.