After expansions, Skico will use about 900 AF of water a year for snowmaking — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A snowmaking gun in action, shooting water into the air to make snow. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Two projects to increase snowmaking on Aspen Mountain and the Snowmass Ski Area have received initial approvals from the U.S. Forest Service, but any potential effects of drawing more water from the local watershed for the additional snowmaking remain unclear.

Aspen Skiing Co. is planning to use an additional 82 acre-feet — 26.7 million gallons — of water per season as part of its two snowmaking expansion projects, with most of the water coming out of Castle, Maroon, Snowmass and East Snowmass creeks.

Aspen Mountain will use an additional 57 acre-feet of water per season for new snowmaking infrastructure on 53 acres near the summit to create reliable and consistent snow coverage, according to a hydrology report that Glenwood Springs-based Resource Engineering prepared for the U.S. Forest Service.

Snowmass will use an additional 25 acre-feet of water per season to cover 33 acres of terrain on the Lodgepole, Lunkerville and Adams Avenue trails, according to an environmental assessment by the Forest Service.

The additional 82 acre-feet of water combined from both the Aspen Mountain and Snowmass expansions will be on top of the 821 acre-feet that Skico currently uses on average each season across its four ski areas, bringing the total seasonal average to 903 acre-feet, according to Rich Burkley, Skico’s senior vice president of strategy and business development.

To put that much water into perspective, Wildcat Reservoir, visible from the Snowmass Ski Area, holds 1,100 acre-feet of water.

Burkley said snowmaking has historically been used to connect natural snowfall to the lifts and base areas. The company’s snowmaking philosophy, he said, is to limit it to the bare minimum needed to open the trails, host events and reach the end of the season. Mountain managers hope increased snowmaking will help avoid a repeat of the bare, rocky slopes of the early 2017-18 season.

“We don’t want to increase snowmaking, but we have to,” Burkley said. “Our snowmaking doesn’t go to the top of any of our mountains and we’ve always relied on natural snowfall to open the mountains. Bringing snowmaking to the summit of Aspen will help ensure a Thanksgiving opening. In a year like this, it wouldn’t be necessary, but it would have helped a bunch last season.”

Although there are fewer other water users pulling from local streams — outdoor irrigation season is over — when Skico fires up its snowmaking operations in November and December, it is using water during a time of year when streamflows are at some of their lowest points of the year. Despite a close read of two recent Forest Service environmental assessments on the snowmaking expansions, it is still not easy to determine exactly what might be the impact of drawing more water from Castle, Maroon, Snowmass and East Snowmass creeks, the four streams that provide most of the water for snowmaking at Skico’s four ski areas.

The diversion dam on Maroon Creek operated by the City of Aspen, which gets its water supply mainly from Castle Creek, but also from Maroon Creek. Below this diversion is another diversion, for the Stapleton Ditch, that SkiCo uses to divert water for the snowmaking system on Buttermilk Mountain. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Environmental Concerns

In June, Pitkin County submitted to the Forest Service a comment encouraging the agency to consider the impacts of increased snowmaking on stream health and the overall watershed, including the potential violation of state minimum instream-flow requirements on Castle and Maroon creeks.

“Ultimately, we’ve found that the range of change for peak flows and watershed yields associated with the snowmaking SkiCo is proposing are within the natural annual variability of water yield and peak flow,” he said.

The Forest Service issued a draft decision notice approving the Aspen Mountain project Nov. 28 and the Snowmass project Dec. 17. Both reviews were in the form of “environmental assessments,” and both projects are currently in their respective 45-day objection period.

But those assurances from the Forest Service may not be enough for some local river advocates, especially after a hot, dry year that saw some streamflows in the Roaring Fork basin plummet to all-time lows and the city of Aspen implement Stage 2 water restrictions for the first time in history.

Ken Neubecker, associate director of American Rivers’ Colorado Basin Program and a member of the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers Board, has concerns about taking more water out of the streams in winter. Although most of the snowpack makes it back into the river as spring runoff, that doesn’t help the winter aquatic environment, he said. Also, while snowmaking may not require as much water as other consumptive uses such as irrigation, those relatively small depletions add up.

“Twenty-five additional acre-feet taken out over the whole season is not much water, but again, what are the cumulative impacts?” Neubecker said, referring to the Snowmass project. “When are we going to reach the straw that breaks the camel’s back, especially in a dry year when there may only be 2 (cubic feet per second) running in the stream?”

Kate Hudson, a Pitkin County resident and professional environmental advocate focused on water, agrees. Hudson, who is also a member of the county’s streams board, said that because the two projects are being considered separately, it’s hard to measure what the overall impacts might be to the Roaring Fork watershed.

“It’s just one more cut of many, but one of the many that may ultimately tip the balance,” she said. “What we are seeing now globally and locally in our environment with water is death by 1,000 cuts.”

The Forest Service review did consider the total depletions of water in the Roaring Fork River watershed from the additional snowmaking, but found they were anticipated, and covered by, an environmental review previously conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on potential future diversions upstream of a key reach of the Colorado River near Grand Junction. The Roaring Fork flows into the Colorado in Glenwood Springs.

A snowcat smooths out a mixture of machine-made and natural snow at the base of Little Nell in December. Securing a good base on Little Nell is critical to Aspen Mountain operations, and machine-made snow is often critical to get the job done.

Aspen Mountain

Aspen Mountain began making snow this season Nov. 1. Its primary snowmaking pump station, located at the base of the mountain, draws water from the city of Aspen’s treated municipal supply, which originates in Castle and Maroon creeks.

According to Burkley, Aspen Mountain uses an average of 199 acre-feet of water per season for snowmaking.

The new project would add about 57 acre-feet of diversions each season, for a total of 256 acre-feet, or 83 million gallons used for snowmaking on Aspen Mountain, according to figures supplied by Burkley.

While Skico has water rights for snowmaking uses from springs on the upper mountain, the hydrology reports says it is “expected that the water supply necessary to support the proposed snowmaking will also be provided by the city.”

In terms of overall impact, it’s important to note that not all of the water used for snowmaking is taken out of the watershed permanently. The snow acts as an on-mountain, frozen reservoir.

According to the hydrology report, about 74 percent of Aspen Mountain’s water used for snowmaking makes it back into the Roaring Fork River as spring runoff. The other 26 percent is lost to evaporation or sublimation or is sucked up by thirsty plants.

The diversion dam on Maroon Creek operated by the City of Aspen, which gets its water supply mainly from Castle Creek, but also from Maroon Creek. Below this diversion is another diversion, for the Stapleton Ditch, that SkiCo uses to divert water for the snowmaking system on Buttermilk Mountain. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Instream flows

The environmental assessment from the Forest Service also warns about instream flows, which are water rights owned by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and are designed to keep water in the river to preserve natural ecosystems and fish health. The conservation board has 12 cfs of instream flow rights on the segment of Castle Creek where the City of Aspen’s diversion is located. The conservation board has 14 cfs of instream flow rights downstream from the city’s diversion on Maroon Creek.

Although streamflows in Maroon and Castle creeks are predicted to more than satisfy the three demands — snowmaking, municipal uses and instream flows — the study warns that snowmaking shortages are possible during drought conditions in the peak snowmaking month of December.

According to Margaret Medellin, utilities portfolio manager for the city of Aspen, the city will not divert if instream flows are threatened. The city has sensors on both its Maroon and Castle Creek headgates and employees manage them daily to preserve the minimum instream flows. For example, Medellin said the city shut down the Maroon Creek hydro facility last summer to protect the instream flows.

Streamflows, however, can be hard to verify. There is no public gauge on Castle Creek, and although there is a new U.S. Geological Survey gauge on Maroon Creek, the reading simply said “Ice” for several days in late December.

Snowmaking guns sit on Aspen Mountain in late December, after much of their work was done for the season. The water that is forced through the guns to make snow on Aspen Mountain comes from Castle and Maroon creeks, often at their lowest levels in late fall and early winter, which is prime snowmaking season.

Snowmass

Snowmass currently uses an average of 383 acre-feet of water per season for snowmaking from the Snowmass Creek watershed.

The water is provided to Skico by the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District, which serves all of Snowmass Village and the ski area.

The district both diverts water from East Snowmass Creek, and also pumps water up from Snowmass Creek, to fill Zeigler Reservoir, which holds 252 acre-feet of water, according district manager to Kit Hamby.

The water is then sent to the ski area’s snowmaking system when it’s time to make snow. The reservoir, home to “Snomastadon,” was put into service in 2013 and provides a buffer from direct drawdowns from Snowmass Creek, where the conservation board also holds an instream flow right.

The ski area also uses another 46 acre-feet from a few ponds that start the season naturally charged.

Each season, the new project would draw an additional 25 acre-feet, or 8 million gallons, from the Snowmass Creek watershed.

As for Skico’s other two ski areas, Aspen Highlands 55 acre-feet a season on average from the city of Aspen’s municipal supply and Buttermilk uses an average of 184 acre-feet a season from Maroon Creek, according to Burkley. Including the new projects, the total seasonal-average use on all four mountains for snowmaking is expected to be 903 acre-feet of water.

Skico works hard to remain an industry leader in sustainability and the environment. Its “Give a Flake” campaign encourages skiers to take action on climate change.

Burkley admits any expansion of terrain or snowmaking contradicts the company’s sustainability message, but he adds that snowmaking is necessary. And last season’s dry and warm conditions brought to the forefront how crucial it is to have snowmaking at higher elevations.

“It definitely undercuts (the sustainability message),” Burkley said. “But we would not be in business without snowmaking so we try to minimize the impacts of it.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is covering rivers and water with The Aspen Times. The Times published this story on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2018.

Judge wants more info from city of Aspen in Castle, Maroon dam cases — @AspenJournalism

The site of the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir, just below the confluence of East and West Maroon creeks. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

A water court judge last week said the city of Aspen needed to supply more information to the court before he could find the city has met the legal standards for “diligence” and “need” concerning its conditional water-storage rights tied to potential reservoirs on upper Castle and Maroon creeks.

The judge’s request for more substance in the court record could be a setback for the city in its two ongoing diligence cases, which began in 2016, and are now being heard together as one case.

If that were to occur, the city would next file a change application in water court to move the rights from Castle and Maroon creeks to five other potential locations. All opposing parties in the cases have agreed not to fight the city’s effort to do so.

The potential reservoir locations, where the city says it will store as much as 8,500 acre-feet of water, are the city-owned golf course, the Maroon Creek Club’s golf course, the Cozy Point open space, the gravel pit in Woody Creek and a city-owned vacant land by the gravel pit.

During a public case-management conference Thursday with most of the water attorneys in the case, Boyd said he had reviewed the record and had concerns about several issues, including fundamental questions of diligence and need.

Boyd told the city’s water attorney, Cynthia Covell of Alperstein & Covell, that there wasn’t sufficient evidence in the court record for him to conclude that there was a “substantial probability that the project will ultimately reach fruition.”

He asked Covell to file with the court “either a supplemental factual record, a legal brief or just a new proposed decree, or any combination of those” by Jan. 18, if possible.

Asked after the conference call what she thought of the judge’s request, she said “I think the judge is being thoughtful and conscientious about this. I think he’s saying, ‘These are a couple of things that I would like to see more in the record on in order to sign off on this decree.’”

Boyd also asked the city to provide the court with its current long-range water-supply plan.

“In terms of filling in that factual record, there is a reference in the applications to Aspen’s long-range plan to maintain a reliable water supply, which at least invites the possible conclusion that there is a single document that is the plan, and if there is, it seems to me, perhaps it should be part of the record in this case,” Boyd said. “Or perhaps it is something other than a single document.”

Covell said the city’s water plan is in a series of documents.

Berries in the meadow near the Maroon Bells that would be flooded by a Maroon Creek Reservoir. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Evolving rights

The city first filed for the conditional water rights in 1965, informing the state it intended to build a 155-foot-tall dam on Maroon Creek that would store 4,567 acre-feet of water, and a 170-foot-tall dam on Castle Creek that would store 9,062 acre-feet of water.

The city obtained conditional decrees for the two reservoirs in 1971. Since then, it has submitted to the state periodic diligence applications, saying each time that it “can and will” someday build the two reservoirs, if necessary.

In current proposed decrees now in front of Boyd, the city is seeking a right to store 8,500 acre-feet in Castle Creek Reservoir, down from 9,062 acre-feet.

It’s also seeking a right to store the original 4,567 acre-feet in Maroon Creek Reservoir, even as it plans on moving both those rights, according to the settlement agreements, and forever walking away from the original locations.

In the settlement agreements, the city also has said it will seek to store no more than 8,500 acre-feet of water, in some configuration, at one or more of the five new locations.

The 8,500 acre-feet of water could come from both Castle and Maroon creeks, in some combination, or it could all come from Castle Creek.

On Thursday, Judge Boyd said he had questions about the city’s estimated storage needs.

“In terms of the obligation to show a need for the water — at least as I review the record — I have an engineering report that contemplates a need of 8,500 acre-feet of storage, which is, of course, the exact size proposed for one of the reservoirs, but the two reservoirs in combination total over 13,000 acre-feet,” Boyd said, “and there is nothing in the record to really explain why that’s an appropriate number for the court to approve, and I think I may need some record to support that.”

He also said the proposed decrees “are completely silent about that contemplated relocation of these reservoirs, and there is really no information in the record about the ability, under the ‘can and will’ doctrine, to put these reservoirs in the new locations that are suggested as possible alternatives,” Boyd said. “So I don’t know if I have any information, really, in the record for me to make the finding that as part of a diligence decree, or diligence burden of proof, of a substantial probability that the project will ultimately reach fruition, so it seems to me I may need some additional actual record to support that conclusion.”

The property next to the Elam gravel pit and the Woody Creek raceway that the City of Aspen has put under contract. The city is investigating the site as a place for potential water storage, either underground or above ground.

Unusual request

Boyd also said it’s the first time he has seen a request such as the city’s, which involves moving conditional rights out of their original location, but only after first obtaining a diligence finding for the water rights in their original locations.

“If it goes forward at all, it will be in a different location,” he said, “and I think that needs to be articulated more clearly in the decree and, as well, give me enough information to conclude it meets the standards for reasonable diligence.”

The Castle and Maroon creek decrees have nearly identical terms, other than size. In fact, they’re often referred to as one decree.

It’s not the first time in the case that the state has asked the city to provide more information.

In a January 2017 “summary of consultation” between the division engineer and the water court’s so-called “referee,” the state said the city must show “a specific plan is in place to develop the subject water rights,” must demonstrate “substantiated population growth in order to justify the continued need for these water rights,” and must show it is “not speculating with the subject water rights.”

The city responded, but not in a way that satisfied the referee.

In August, more than a year and a half after the summary of consultation, the referee, Susan Ryan, sent the city’s two cases to Boyd for him to resolve.

She had noted that outstanding issues in both cases “will require water judge adjudication of the facts and/or rulings of law.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times. The Times published this story on Monday, Dec. 3, 2018.

Aspen Skiing Co. expects normal snowmaking operations this season despite #drought

Aspen

From The Aspen Daily News (Chad Abraham):

Despite an unprecedented water restriction amid the ongoing drought affecting much of Colorado and the West, officials with the city of Aspen and Aspen Skiing Co. said the dry conditions should not impact the company’s ability to make snow at its four resorts…

SkiCo uses municipal water for snowmaking on Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands from the city’s 3-million-gallon reservoir up Castle Creek, water from Maroon Creek for Buttermilk, and water stored in Ziegler Reservoir for the Snowmass Ski Area. And communication between the city and the SkiCo is key, particularly now amid the drought.

Margaret Medellin, the city of Aspen’s portfolio utilities manager, said Friday that Thomas Reservoir doesn’t afford much storage for the city’s needs, and the municipality relies largely on direct flows from Maroon and Castle creeks. Still, “there are a lot of reasons why snowmaking is a water use that can be done even during this dry period,” she said.

That includes snowmaking mostly happening during November and early December, when water demand has lessened because of fewer residents, second-home owners and visitors; along with fewer times nowadays with temperatures suitable for making flakes.

In summertime, the largest use of city water, as much as 86 percent at times, goes to irrigation, but now “irrigation systems are starting to shut down, and we’re seeing the demand on the system dropping,” she said…

She also said that snowmaking overall is a pretty small use — annually less than 8 percent — of the city water supply.

“Having said that, we do constantly monitor our creeks,” Medellin said. “If SkiCo wanted to make snow, and it’s too close to in-stream flow [requirements], we’d communicate with them that they wouldn’t be able to make snow…

Katie Ertl, SkiCo’s senior vice president of mountain operations, said the drought and city water restrictions have “been on our minds,” and led to a recent, in-company meeting.

She agreed the health of the streams is paramount and echoed Medellin: “We’re putting snow on the hill when not a lot of water is being used.

“We recognize that we have a bit of time before now and then, and we’re hoping for the possibility of natural snow,” Ertl said. “We knew this conversation was going to come up with Stage 2 water restrictions. We’re paying attention to what the city requirements may be and will work in conjunction with them for Aspen Mountain and Highlands.”

She said SkiCo, being the valley’s largest employer and driver of tourism, will also consult with other businesses and interest groups about water use for snowmaking…

Ertl and Medellin both said that 70 to 80 percent of the man-made snow ends up back in the watershed during runoff, rather than being lost to evaporation.

Aspen signs deals with @AmericanRivers, Trout Unlimited to move Castle/Maroon dam rights — @AspenJournalism

Berries in the meadow near the Maroon Bells that would be flooded by a Maroon Creek Reservoir. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

American Rivers and Colorado Trout Unlimited are the latest of 10 opposing parties to sign agreements with the city of Aspen stating that the city will move its conditional water storage rights out of the upper Castle and Maroon creek valleys to five other locations.

“This is a significant victory for rivers in Colorado,” said Matt Rice, the Colorado River basin director for American Rivers, in a statement issued jointly with Colorado Trout Unlimited on Tuesday.

The alternative potential locations to store water from Castle and Maroon creeks include the city’s golf course, on open space near the Burlingame neighborhood, on open space at Cozy Point at the bottom of Brush Creek Road, on undeveloped land in Woody Creek next to the gravel pit and in the gravel pit itself.

David Nickum, the executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited, said in the statement, “We appreciate the city of Aspen making this commitment to meet its water-supply needs while protecting these much-loved valleys and creeks, and the wild trout that call them home.”

City officials also expect to soon receive a signed agreement from Roaring Fork Land and Cattle Co., the owner of an estate in the lower Maroon Creek valley, according to Margeret Medellin, a utilities portfolio manager for the city of Aspen.

As of May 29, the city had reached earlier settlements with Pitkin County, Wilderness Workshop, Western Resource Advocates, Double R Cross Ltd and Asp Properties LLC in the two cases.

Medellin said Tuesday she understands the U.S. Forest Service also is prepared to sign an agreement and is working toward that end.

And at a June 26 status conference, Craig Corona, the attorney for Larsen Family LP, the last of the 10 opposing parties, told the court he and his client were making progress toward settlement with the city.

City officials have previously said none of the agreements are valid unless all 10 parties sign them.

Reached on Tuesday, Corona said he could not discuss the case.

A water court official has given the opposing parties who have not reached agreement with the city until July 10 to respond to the city’s latest proposal.

The city then has until Aug. 7 to get back to the opposers and the next status conference in the two water court cases is set for Aug. 21.

A map showing the location of the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir.

1965 filing

The city’s conditional water storage rights date back to 1965, when the city first filed maps with the state declaring its intent to build the two dams.

One water right is tied to a 155-foot-tall dam that would be located just below the confluence of East and West Maroon creeks, within view of the Maroon Bells, to hold back 4,567 acre-feet of water in the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir.

The other is tied to a 170-foot-tall dam on Castle Creek 2 miles below Ashcroft that could store 9,062 acre-feet in the potential Castle Creek Reservoir.

The city’s water rights carry a 1971 priority date and since then the city has periodically told the state it still intends to build the dams and reservoirs someday, when necessary.

In its latest periodic diligence filings with the state, in October 2016, the city again declared its intent and drew opposition from the 10 opposing parties.

The dam site of the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir, in the Roaring Fork River basin. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Key issues raised during the process include whether the city has been diligently making progress toward building the dams and if the city needs the water.

However, sufficient diligence and need are in the eyes of a water court judge and remain unresolved questions.

In their statement issued Tuesday, American Rivers and Trout Unlimited pointed out that “Aspen’s own 2016 water availability report clearly stated that the city did not need the two dams for municipal water supply or climate resiliency.”

Since that 2016 report the city has conducted a “risk analysis” study that found it could perhaps need about 8,000 acre-feet of storage in a hotter and drier world.

And a recent engineering study that identified five alternative locations where the city could potentially store the water.

“We explored alternatives for water storage and we believe we’ve come up with the best solution for prudent water management that serves the needs of our water customers and speaks to our environmental values,” Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron said in March, when the city spent $2.68 million on 63 acres of vacant land as a potential water storage site.

Under the terms of the settlements being signed with the city, the opposing parties are conceding that the city has been diligent, or perhaps diligent enough, and are taking a neutral stance, at least with the court, on the question of whether the city needs that much water.

“American Rivers agreed to diligence for the City of Aspen because we thought this was the best opportunity to reach a settlement with the city that would permanently remove the water rights for the two dams from the Castle and Maroon Creek valleys, not because we believe the city needs more water storage or has been diligent in developing the projects,” Rice, of American Rivers, told Aspen Journalism. “Our priority has always been the health and protection of Castle and Maroon Creeks. “

The signed agreements to date say that the parties will not oppose a forthcoming application from the city to relocate up to 8,500 acre-feet of its 13,629 acre-feet of conditional water storage rights to potential storage facilities at the five locations outside of the high valleys.

Other parties, not in the Castle and Maroon creek cases, can still oppose the city’s efforts in water court to move the water rights, and their 1971 decree date.

If it is unsuccessful in its efforts to move the rights, the city has said, in the agreements it has signed to date, that it will not seek to maintain the Castle and Maroon rights in their original locations.

The signed agreements to date say that the parties will not oppose a forthcoming application from the city to relocate up to 8,500 acre-feet of it’s 13,629 acre-feet of conditional water storage rights to potential storage facilities at the five locations outside of the high valleys.

Other parties, not in the Castle and Maroon creek cases, can still oppose the city’s efforts in water court to move the water rights, and their 1971 decree date.

If it is unsuccessful in its efforts to move the rights, the city has said, in the agreements it has signed to date, that it will not seek to maintain the Castle and Maroon rights in their original locations.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times on coverage of rivers and water. The Times published this story on July 4, 2018.

City of Aspen moves closer to settlements on Castle and Maroon creeks water rights cases — @AspenJournalism

The dam site of the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

The city of Aspen continues to make progress on reaching settlement agreements with 10 different parties over its water rights on Maroon and Castle creeks, and a water referee set deadlines that could lead to a resolution before the end of summer.

At a status conference [July 26, 2018], both the city and its opponents said progress is being made toward resolving the cases.

“I feel optimistic we are moving toward a settlement,” said Cindy Covell, a water attorney for the city who is with Alperstein and Covell in Denver.

So far, five of the 10 parties who oppose the city’s efforts in water court to maintain conditional storage rights tied to potential dams on Maroon and Castle creeks have signed settlement agreements. Still left to sign are American Rivers, Trout Unlimited, the U.S. Forest Service, Larsen Family Limited Partnership and Roaring Fork Land & Cattle Co.

Attorney Paul Noto, who represents American Rivers, Trout Unlimited and Roaring Fork Land and Cattle Co., said his clients will likely settle soon.

“I think we are all enthused about how it all ended up,” Noto said. “We are excited about the protections afforded to Castle and Maroon creeks.”

That leaves two other parties that are further away from settling, Larsen Family LP and the U.S. Forest Service.

Attorney Craig Corona of Aspen, who represents the Larsen family, told water court referee Susan Michelle Ryan on Tuesday that he and the city are “definitely” making progress toward finalizing a settlement. The U.S. Forest Service has been difficult to reach lately, according to Covell.

Upper Castle Creek, about two miles below Ashcroft, where the city holds conditional water storage rights tied to the potential Castle Creek Reservoir, which would be formed by a 170-foot-tall dam. The city is moving closer to reaching settlement agreements with the ten parties opposing the city’s effort to hang on to the water rights, and the settlement includes moving the city’s rights out of the Castle and Maroon creek valleys.

Response deadlines

Ryan set a deadline of July 10 for the remaining opposing parties to respond to the city’s settlement proposal. The city must respond to those responses (if a response is necessary) by Aug. 7. The next status conference is scheduled for Aug. 21.

The cases are being heard in Division 5 Water Court in Glenwood Springs. The new deadlines mean the cases will extend past the 18-month deadline of disposition, but Ryan decided to keep them on her docket since progress toward a resolution is being made.

Potential reservoirs

Since 1965, the city has owned conditional water rights for reservoirs on Maroon and Castle creeks. In October 2016, the city filed a diligence application to maintain the water rights, which are tied to potential dams.

The potential Maroon Creek Reservoir would hold 4,567 acre-feet of water and include a 155-foot-tall dam, which would flood part of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. The potential Castle Creek Reservoir would hold 9,062 acre-feet behind a 170-foot-tall dam 2 miles below Ashcroft.

The possibility of two new reservoirs and dams didn’t sit well with 10 parties, who filed statements of opposition to the two water rights cases in December 2016.

Under the agreements, the city will seek to transfer its conditional water storage rights to other potential reservoir sites, including a gravel pit near Woody Creek, with a maximum storage capacity of 8,500 acre-feet. As part of the deal, the opposing parties have agreed not to fight the city’s efforts to move the water rights to new locations for 20 years.

The five parties that have already signed the agreements include Pitkin County, Wilderness Workshop, Western Resource Advocates and two private property owners in Castle Creek Valley.

#Aspen may stockpile water under its golf course — @HighCountryNews

From The High Country News (Jessic Kutz):

This story is a part of the ongoing Back 40 series, where HCN reporters look at national trends and their impacts close to home.

Following a dry winter, Colorado’s already low snowpack is rapidly dwindling and extreme drought has been declared in a third of the state. Many communities, not only in Colorado, but also in other parts of the West, are wondering about their future water security.

For the city of Aspen, located in the headwaters of the Upper Colorado River Basin, planning for a warmer climate is no longer about the distant future. The 6,500-population municipality relies on pulling water from creeks fed by the snowpack, which sat at just eight percent of its median as of June 11, according to snow monitoring data. And the future doesn’t look any better: Recent research suggests climate change will further disrupt the snowpack in the coming years.

In Aspen, the need for water security is being met with a search for alternative storage solutions that have less damaging environmental impacts than the big dams of yesteryear. Over the past two years the city has begun testing several potential water storage sites, including beneath the municipal golf course, as a means to deal with future water shortages. “We are at that point now were it is time to start putting those (storage) plans into action,” said Margaret Medellin, the city’s utilities manager.

The dam site of the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

While Aspen pulls its water from nearby Crystal and Maroon creeks, the city doesn’t have any storage capacity. Currently, the city can stockpile just a day’s worth of water, something Medellin said could be a problem this year. “People right now are conserving water and we could still be in a real hardship at the end of the summer because we have no way to store that water,” she said. “When talking about other communities in Colorado and the West that is a level of vulnerability that is not really acceptable as a water management practice.”

This vulnerability is part of the reason why, since 1965, the city has quietly renewed a filing in Colorado’s water court that kept alive the possibility of building two dams on Castle and Maroon creeks. In 2016, when area environmental groups including the Wilderness Workshop and Western Resource Advocates got wind of the renewal, they announced their opposition to the filing, urging the City of Aspen to relinquish its storage rights. If developed, those rights would have flooded some of the state’s most pristine landscape.

In May the city agreed to forego its conditional water storage rights in these wilderness areas, marking the end of Aspen’s ties to the era of large federal dams like Hoover and Glen Canyon. As part of the agreement, the city is now entering a new period for water storage and conservation policy. One option includes storing water under the city’s municipal golf course. The water could either be injected into the underlying aquifer, or would reach it through a basin specifically designed to draw water underground, Medellin said. This would allow the city to store up to 1,200 acre-feet, or about enough to supply 2,400 households for one year, and would eliminate evaporation, a problem that worsens with rising temperatures. “As a concept it really does help you preserve a lot of the water with minimal loss,” Medellin said.

The groups also identified a former gravel pit, and land adjacent to it, that could accommodate up to 8,000 acre-feet of water, which could be diverted from the Roaring Fork River, if the city transfers its water rights. Seen as a win-win by environmentalists, retrofitting old gravel pits has been used successfully on Colorado’s Front Range since the 1980s. The key would be diverting water from the river at the right time, which, according to Ken Neubacker, Colorado projects director at American Rivers, is right after the river reaches its peak flows. “It all depends on how they do it,” he said.

Aspen’s water management plans include irrigating with reused water and introducing a net metering system, which would help the city’s residents track — and reduce — water use. In collaboration with environmental groups, the city is also looking at a program which would allow farmers to temporarily lease some of their water rights during dry periods, letting the municipality use them instead.

For Aspen, much like other communities across the West, storage will increasingly become a part of water planning strategy, but at least now environmental groups are part of the discussion. “Coming to the table and talking these problems through will be essential,” said Robert Harris, an attorney with Western Resource Advocates. As climate change reduces available water, “we can’t depend on the past being any guarantee of the future.”

Jessica Kutz is an editorial intern at High Country News. This article was first published online at The High Country News on June 19, 2018.

A map provided by the city of Aspen showing the two parcels in Woody Creek it has under contract. The city is investigating the possibility of building a reservoir on the site, as well as looking at the possibility of a reservoir in the neighboring Elam gravel pit.

Updated timeline: the Maroon and Castle creek conditional water storage rights — @AspenJournalism

Will Roush, left, of Wilderness Workshop, and Ken Neubecker, right, of American Rivers, hold up tape on Sept. 7, 2016 showing where the base of a 155-foot-tall dam would be located on Maroon Creek if the City of Aspen were to build the potential Maroon Creek Reservoir.

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

Timeline from 1881 to pre-May 2018.

May 8, 2018, a status conference is held in the two cases in front of the water court referee. The city must respond to opposer’s settlement proposals by June 1. The next status conference is set for June 29. Meanwhile, the City of Aspen’s two due diligence applications remain before the water court referee, in a quasi-administrative, non-trial-track status.

May 9, 2018, Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times report that city has reached agreement with one of the opposing parties in the dam cases.

May 24, 2018, A staff memo regarding stipulation agreements on the water rights is published by the city. The packet for a May 29 staff meeting also includes a proposed resolution.

The title of the resolution is “A RESOLUTION OF THE CITY COUNCIL OF THE CITY OF ASPEN, COLORADO, AUTHORIZING THE CITY’S ATTORNEYS TO EXECUTE STIPULATIONS WITH OPPOSERS TO THE DILIGENCE CASES FOR CONDITIONAL WATER STORAGE RIGHTS ON CASTLE AND MAROON CREEKS ON BEHALF OF THE CITY OF ASPEN, COLORADO.”

The Aspen Daily News reports on the city council’s pending vote related to moving its move water rights out of Castle and Maroon creek valleys, as does The Aspen Times, Aspen Journalism, and Aspen Public Radio. APR’s story was headlined “Aspen agrees to never build dams on Castle and Maroon.”

A map prepared for the City of Aspen that shows the five potential water-storage sites in the Roaring Fork River valley.

May 29, 2018, The Aspen city council votes unanimously to approve agreements with five opposing parties in the Castle and Maroon creek cases. Agreements have yet to be reached with the other five opposing parties.

The Aspen Times and the Aspen Daily News each publish stories about the vote.

The city issues a press release with the headline, “City Council Votes to Support Moving Conditional Water Rights off Wilderness Areas.”

As of May 29 there were stipulation agreements signed by five parties. Three of those parties are in both the Castle and Maroon creek cases. Below is a list, with links to the agreements signed to date, and made public by the city.

There is also a draft degree included as Exhibit A to the agreements for both the Castle Creek stipulations and the Maroon Creek stipulations.

The Pitkin County stipulation is listed at the top, as it is the most restrictive of the stipulation agreements yet signed. It eliminates the use of the county-owned Moore Open Space as a potential storage site, while the earlier agreements with other parties include it.

Pitkin County – Maroon Creek Reservoir
Pitkin County – Castle Creek Reservoir

Wilderness Workshop – Maroon Creek Reservoir
Wilderness Workshop – Castle Creek Reservoir

Western Resource Advocates – Maroon Creek Reservoir
Western Resource Advocates – Castle Creek Reservoir

Double R Cross Ltd – Castle Creek Reservoir

ASP Properties, LLC – Castle Creek Reservoir

Agreements were not signed by May 29 with five other opposing parties, three of whom are in both cases:

USFS – Maroon Creek Reservoir
USFS – Castle Creek Reservoir

American Rivers – Maroon Creek Reservoir
American Rivers – Castle Creek Reservoir

Trout Unlimited – Maroon Creek Reservoir
Trout Unlimited – Castle Creek Reservoir

Larsen Family LP – Maroon Creek Reservoir

Roaring Fork Land and Cattle Co. – Maroon Creek Reservoir

May 30, 2018, Western Resource Advocates issues a press release about the city’s vote, with the headline, “Conservationists reach settlement with Aspen to permanently move water rights for dams out of Maroon & Castle Creeks.”

WRA is also encouraging people to sign a thank you card to the city of Aspen, saying “We’re celebrating a landmark agreement two years in the making: the City of Aspen has agreed not to build dams on Maroon and Castle Creeks!”