Aspen, Colo. environmental community split over small hydro

  • A section of Castle Creek running next to a city garage in Aspen, Colorado. The 1893 building was the city's first hydropower plant. A proposed new hydro turbine, which would use water diverted from upstream and release it back into the creek here, faces community opposition.

    Andrew Cullen
 

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Besides, hydro opponents like Harvey and others insist that ensuring minimum instream flow is no guarantee. "The science of stream ecology has conclusively shown that maintaining a minimum flow will not keep a stream healthy," says Ken Neubecker former president of Colorado Trout Unlimited. And saying the streams' health must be sacrificed to fight climate change is, he adds, akin to the Vietnam War logic of destroying villages to save them.

Some also accuse the city of trying to circumvent federal review. In 2008, Aspen applied for a licensing waiver from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which permits hydroelectric proposals, claiming a simple resumption of the decommissioned plant. FERC had suggested the waiver was a possibility but denied the application because the city had abandoned the plant. In 2010 the city began building one of the reservoir pipelines that would feed the hydro project, arguing that it was a necessary emergency drainline, and applied for a waiver from FERC environmental review. Others saw devious intentions. "We know when somebody is trying to cheat," says John Seebech, Washington D.C.-based director of American Rivers' Hydropower Reform Initiative.

As the fight over the hydro plant dragged on, costs nearly doubled to $10.5 million by last summer. Still, Castle Creek would deliver extremely low-cost power over the 75- to 100-year life of the plant, says City Manager Steve Barwick.

Owners of water rights in Castle Creek, including fossil fuel magnate Bill Koch, have even sued Aspen on grounds that it abandoned its water rights for hydroelectric production when it decommissioned the old plant.

The power the city wants can easily be generated elsewhere, at solar or wind farms, Harvey said soon after her Fourth of July appearance last summer. "I'm sure they meant well when they started this, but they're so locked into it."

Auden Schendler, vice president for sustainability with the Aspen Skiing Co., calls it an "iconic battle between those who really get climate change and the need for immediate action and models for success, and those who did great work fighting traditional environmental battles but who are misunderstanding or deprioritizing the crux issue of our time."

Aspen is hardly alone in struggling to shrink its carbon dependence. Inspired by the 2005 example of Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, more than 1,000 mayors in the United States -- including 64 in the Rocky Mountain states -- have launched efforts to attain the goals of the Kyoto Protocol. That agreement committed participants to make their best efforts to knock back greenhouse gas emissions 7 percent by 2012 as compared to 1990 levels. Inventories will not be completed until this summer, although it appears the rapid switching from coal power to natural gas may help a larger number of communities than expected meet the target, officials say. Otherwise, even tiny successes have been hard-earned, and big actions can be enormously difficult.

Boulder, Colo., adopted the nation's first carbon tax and pioneered a program making it easier for homeowners to borrow money for energy efficiency upgrades and renewables. Still, it's only halfway to Kyoto's short-term goal, and Boulder regional sustainability manager Jonathan Koehn says officials are now looking to rapidly decarbonize the electrical supply.  The  city may split from the privately owned utility now serving it to produce its own electricity, but the path is uncertain.

Portland, Ore., is among the exceptions. Despite population growth of 25 percent, Portland's emissions are about 8 percent below 1990 levels. "As of 2010, we were on track -- but not with a lot of room for error," says Michael Armstrong of the city's planning and sustainability department. He attributes the successes to land-use policies, integrated transportation, improved energy efficiency, and a shift to cleaner energy sources.

Ruthie Brown is one of the Aspen hydro project's staunchest backers. Her grandfather helped install the original plants. "There's no doubt that it can be done in an environmentally sound way," she says.

With that in mind, Brown helped convene a mediation session in 2011. The resulting agreement calls for the plant to sit idle during low-flow months for three years while more data on the relationship between stream health and flow levels are collected. Local government and state wildlife representatives would then decide whether to allow greater diversions. Impacts would be evaluated again after the sixth year. Only then, and after a unanimous vote, would the project operate at full capacity.

But with the plant now in limbo, the city council is unsure how to proceed. In January, officials invited the public to submit alternative projects, so long as they fit within the 2015 Canary deadline. In response, they got a 35-page earful from local heavy-hitter Amory Lovins, longtime climate activist and founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute -- a nonprofit that promotes more efficient use of resources. "A cheaper or otherwise superior solution that takes longer to complete may provide greater net public good," he wrote, advising the city to keep improving energy efficiency instead of continuing with the hydro plant.

Even supporters admit the city's process was flawed and, perhaps, rushed. Despite a seeming voter mandate and stakeholder meetings, says the city's first Canary Initiative director, Dan Richardson, Aspen tried to push past opposition rather than reach broad consensus -- a possible lesson for other climate activists. For now, the city's $1.46 million custom-built turbine sits in storage.