"The city of Aspen took its first legal steps Monday to preserve its water rights to build dams on both Castle and Maroon creeks, setting off a fire storm of criticism from at least two conservation groups.
The filings were made with the District 5 Water Court and came after City Council voted 5-0 on Oct. 10 to proceed with the extension, which if granted, could result in the construction of two reservoirs on the pristine creeks. The city claimed the water rights in November 1971.
The city’s concern over a growing population, combined with climate change’s impacts on the two creeks, which supply drinking water to residents, was the chief impetus to register two documents called “applications for finding of reasonable diligence' with the water court.
'These warmer days demonstrate that local snowpack, the primary source of the City’s water supply, is threatened,' the filings said.
Carbondale-based conservation group Wilderness Workshop issued a statement Tuesday criticizing the city’s move.
'The city of Aspen’s pursuit of dams on Castle and Maroon creeks could not be more out of step with the community’s values,' said Will Roush, Conservation Director at the Wilderness Workshop. “These two iconic creeks, universally treasured by our community, have far too many social and ecological values to build unneeded reservoirs on them.'
In a telephone interview, Roush said he saw no surprises in the filings.
'I think in terms of the technical aspects, this is what we anticipated,” he said. 'It’s consistent with the resolution they passed on the 10th, but they will have the option to modify the size or the location of the reservoirs.'
Rob Harris, the senior staff attorney for another conservation group, Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates, said, 'The city’s conditional water rights provide no protection from the Front Range of Colorado diverting water from the West Slope. These water rights serve only one purpose, to build dams near Aspen and at the foot of the Maroon Bells. Western Resource Advocates would look forward to working with Aspen on better water management options that benefit the community and the environment for the long-term.'
While environmental groups, as well as multiple local residents, have been outspoken against the city’s effort to renew its water rights because of the potential for dams to be built, city officials played down such a scenario when they made their decision last month. City Council members explained that preserving the rights would prevent another party from grabbing them in the future, and the dams would be built in a worst-case scenario so the creeks could adequately serve Aspen’s projected population of 17,500 in 2066.
'The question is not to build or not to build dams,' Mayor Steve Skadron said at the October meeting. “The issue is whether to keep the water rights … with the due diligence that is upon us.'
'The scariest thing about climate change is unpredictability,' Councilwoman Ann Mullins said at the meeting. “And you just don’t know what’s going to happen. … I’m not convinced if we lose the water rights now that in some extreme circumstances there might be a water grab by another municipality.'
Wilderness Workshop suggested the city’s concerns are overblown.
'Even if the population of Aspen triples to more than 17,000 (growth that is likely far outside the community’s desired future) and climate change causes significant change in the run-off pattern, there will still be plenty of water for the citizens of Aspen,' Wilderness Workshop’s statement said.
Both creeks meander stretch through valleys leading to the popular destinations of the Maroon Bells and the ghost town of Ashcroft.
The city’s applications for renewals aren’t done deals. There is a 60-day period for statements of opposition to be filed with the water court. From there, the matter could go to a water referee, and possibly an 18-month period for settlement discussions."