Aspen puts forward settlement proposals for Maroon and Castle creek dams

This meadow, about two miles below Maroon Lake, would be covered by the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir. The 85-acre reservoir would also flood portions of the Maroon Bells -Snowmass Wilderness.

The city of Aspen has told opposing parties in two water court cases it is willing to remove the prospect of a potential Maroon Creek Reservoir from the Maroon Creek valley, if the way is made clear for it to apply to transfer the conditional water rights for the reservoir to other sites in the Roaring Fork River valley.

The city’s proposal requires the parties to let the city’s periodic diligence applications proceed unopposed, and to also agree not to challenge the city’s efforts to transfer the water rights in new cases, according to several attorneys for opposing parties who attended a city-hosted settlement meeting Wednesday.

And, the city said, even if it’s not successful in those cases, it won’t return and try to store water in the current location of the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir.

“We had a great meeting with the city yesterday and we’re very encouraged that we’ll be able to settle the Larsen family’s opposition on the Maroon Creek Reservoir by the end of the year,” said Craig Corona, a water attorney in Aspen representing Larsen Family LP, which is only in the Maroon Creek case in water court.

Aspen City Attorney Jim True said Thursday that “potential resolutions of the cases were discussed” at the meeting. He was there along with other Aspen officials, including City Manager Steve Barwick, Mayor Steve Skadron and Aspen City Councilwoman Ann Mullins.

Representatives or attorneys from nine of the 10 opposing parties were at the closed-door meeting.

The city of Aspen told the opposing parties it wants to transfer the full 4,567 acre-foot conditional storage right in the Maroon Creek Reservoir to other potential sites, including the Aspen golf course, Cozy Point Ranch at Brush Creek Road, an approximately 60-acre site next to the gravel pit in Woody Creek operated by Elam Construction Inc., or the already-excavated gravel pit. (Barwick, during a July 19 press conference, described the city’s general intent to try and transfer the water rights).

Paul Noto is a water attorney representing American Rivers, Colorado Trout Unlimited and the Roaring Fork Land and Cattle Co. in the Maroon Creek case, and the two environmental groups in the Castle Creek case. He said they were “getting closer” to a settlement.

“The proposal on Maroon Creek, we are a lot closer on, because as I understand it, the city is committing to move their water storage right, and therefore the potential to dam the creek, out of Maroon Creek valley forever and always,” he said. “And that’s a good thing.”

A map showing the potential Castle Creek Reservoir. The City of Aspen has agreed not to flood property owned by Simon Pinniger and Mark and Karen Hedstrom, and so the reservoir is expected to be smaller than shown.

Castle Creek proposal

The city’s proposal regarding the 9,062-acre-foot Castle Creek Reservoir is more complex than its proposal for the Maroon Creek Reservoir.

The city said it would be willing to reduce the size of the Castle Creek Reservoir so it does not flood very small portions of the wilderness, as it does under its current decree. It would then move those portions of the water rights out of the Castle Creek valley.

(Since 2010 the city has signed agreements with two other private property owners whose lands would be flooded by the Castle Creek Reservoir. The city agreed not to flood portions of land owned by Simon Pinniger and by Mark and Karen Hedstrom, on the upstream edge of the potential reservoir. “It is expected that this commitment by Aspen will result in a reduction in the volume and surface area of the Castle Creek Reservoir, and Aspen has contracted for a preliminary investigation of the anticipated revised size and volume of the Castle Creek Reservoir,” the city’s due diligence application from Oct. 31 states. As such, it already be the case that the potential reservoir would not encroach on the wilderness).

The city also said it might further reduce the size of the reservoir if that’s consistent with the size of the city’s future water needs, which are not yet determined. It also might move the resulting reservoir off the private land where it is now sited to another unspecified location or locations.

“The city is just not willing yet to make the commitment to move the water right out of the Castle Creek valley forever and always,” Noto said. “They have more work to do and studies to do to be able to be comfortable in making that commitment.”

But the negotiations over Castle Creek could slow down an agreement on Maroon Creek.

“At this point they aren’t willing to commit to settling the Maroon Creek case separately from the Castle Creek case, so there is a bit of a timing issue because we have more work to do on Castle Creek,” Noto said.

A view, looking toward Aspen, of the gravel pit in Woody Creek operated by Elam Construction Inc. The city has put the sage-covered property next to the gravel pit, to the right in the photo, under contract as a potential reservoir site.

Since 1965

As currently decreed, the Maroon Creek Reservoir would be formed by a 155-foot-tall dam that would back up water over 85 acres of USFS land about 2 miles below Maroon Lake and would flood a portion of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

The Castle Creek Reservoir would require a 170-foot-tall dam across Castle Creek two miles below Ashcroft, mainly on private land, but with some USFS and wilderness land flooded. The surface area of the reservoir would cover 120 acres of land.

The conditional storage rights for the two reservoirs carry a 1971 decree date and were filed by the city in 1965. Since then the city has periodically told the state it still intends to build the two reservoirs someday, if necessary.

In October, the city submitted two due diligence applications for the potential reservoirs in water court. The applications drew opposition from 10 parties, including four landowners, four environmental groups, Pitkin County and the U.S. Forest Service.

“I think the city has done a lot of work in a short time frame since the last meeting, but there is still a lot more work for all the parties to do,” said Rob Harris, an attorney with Western Resource Advocates who is representing WRA and Wilderness Workshop in the two cases. “Frankly, for both of these water rights, neither one is moved out until they are moved out. We can talk about potential alternative solutions, but we’re not through the woods until both water rights are out of these valleys.”

When asked about the city’s proposal on Castle Creek, Harris said WRA was “committed to protecting” both valleys.

“We do genuinely believe that the city’s goal is to protect these valleys and to avoid building dams in them,” Harris also said. “But their goal is also to hang on to as much of their water right as they can feel comfortable hanging on to. And we have to work really hard to make those goals compatible.”

Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times on coverage of water. The Times published this story on Friday, August 4, 2017.

@EPAScottPruitt tours the #GoldKingMine

On April 7, 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear.
Eric Baker

From The Denver Post (Jesse Paul):

Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt says his agency “walked away” from Colorado after the Gold King Mine spill under the Obama administration, vowing Friday to make a federal cleanup of the Gold King and other abandoned mines around Silverton a priority…

Pruitt visited the site Friday with a delegation of Colorado’s top politicians on the eve of the two-year anniversary of the EPA-triggered disaster. He said that he planned to meet with private citizens impacted by the spill, as well as local leaders, to get first-hand information on his agency’s response.

“I’ve already sent out a letter to all the claimants who have filed claims asking them to resubmit,” Pruitt told The Denver Post in a phone interview ahead of his visit to the Gold King. “Some of those folks I’m sure I’ll meet today, and I’m looking forward to speaking with them directly. Farmers and ranchers, business owners, the recreational activities that occur on the Animas River — all were impacted, and from my perspective it was a wrong that we need to make right.”

Remediation will take place at the scores of sites that have leeched millions of gallons of heavy metal-laden water from the Gold King and surrounding mines, Pruitt said, despite President Donald Trump’s proposed funding cuts to the EPA’s Superfund cleanup program. Silverton’s leaders have expressed concern about the EPA’s efforts taking too long or being delayed indefinitely.

“I can absolutely commit that this will be a priority,” Pruitt said. “I’ve shared with Congress that if money is a concern about fulfilling our responsibilities under Superfund, I will advise them.”

Pruitt said he is working to create a list of 10 Superfund sites — of the more than 1,300 nationwide — for the EPA to focus on.

“I don’t know yet (if the Gold King and surrounding mines will be on that list),” he said. “We are evaluating all of the sites right now. Either way, it is going to be a priority.”

From the Associated Press via The Fort Collins Coloradoan:

The Environmental Protection Agency will reconsider whether to pay farmers, business owners and others in three states for economic losses caused by a mine waste spill that government crews accidentally triggered in 2015, the agency’s leader said Friday during a visit to the site.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who toured Gold King Mine with Colorado lawmakers on the eve of the disaster’s second anniversary, said he told people to resubmit claims rejected under the Obama administration. It’s not clear if the agency could pay on its own or how much of the potential payouts would need to be approved by Congress…

The EPA has designated the area a Superfund site to pay for a broad cleanup…

Pruitt, who had promised to visit the mine during his confirmation hearing earlier this year, said he has sent letters to people whose claims were rejected by former President Barack Obama’s EPA.

In January, the agency said federal law prevented it from paying claims because of sovereign immunity, which prohibits most lawsuits against the government…

It’s uncertain whether the White House and Congress, both controlled by Republicans, are willing to pay for any of the economic losses, although the GOP has been most vocal in demanding the EPA make good.

It’s not clear how much money would be at stake in a new round of claims.

Claims for $1.2 billion in lost income, property damage and personal injuries were initially filed with the EPA, but attorneys for some of the larger claimants later reduced the amounts they were seeking. A review by The Associated Press estimated the damages sought at $420 million.

The EPA has spent more than $31.3 million on the spill, including remediation work, water testing and payments to state, local and tribal agencies.

The agency said last year it would pay $4.5 million to state, local and tribal governments to cover the cost of their emergency response to the spill, but it rejected $20.4 million in other requests for past and future expenses, again citing federal law.

From CBS Denver (Rick Sallinger):

In an interview with CBS4’s Matt Kroeshel, [U.S. Senator Michael] Bennet said, “Having designation as Superfund site is only one step in the process. We need to make sure the resources are put into there to do the remediation that’s required at the site.”

The environmental mess that flowed from the Gold King Mine could happen again. Its owner Hennis says an adjacent mine is filled with even more toxic liquids.

When asked, “Could we have another disaster?” Hennis replied, “Absolutely and it would be a thousand times worse than Gold King.”

[…]

Sen. Gardner echoed that this is not a one time only problem, “Not just Gold King, we are talking about a handful of mines around the West that pose a threat to our environment and our community.”