Aspen may stockpile water under its golf course

As climate change looms, towns look to store water without dams.

 

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.

Colorado’s Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness is a popular area for both summer and winter recreationists. In May, the possibility of building a water storage dam in this area was officially taken off the table by Aspen city officials.

While Aspen pulls its water from nearby Castle 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. 

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