ASPEN – 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.
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.
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.
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.