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. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS AND FINANCE MANAGER
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a national grassroots organization led by women, seeks a resourceful, self-motivated, team player to serve as Operations and Finance Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    ORGANIZATIONAL BACKGROUND Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) fosters community stewardship, education and awareness of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • WYOMING STATE DIRECTOR
    Save the World ... or at least a piece of it! Join The Nature Conservancy and make a tangible and lasting impact by creating a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR FOR AN ENVIRONMENTAL ADVOCACY NON-PROFIT NEAR YOSEMITE
    Demanding, but rewarding, advocacy work on forest, water, wildland, and wildlife issues. Applicants should have experience dealing with land management planning, public speaking, grassroots organizing,...
  • NEW AGRARIAN APPRENTICESHIP
    Quivira Coalition's 2020 New Agrarian Apprenticeships in Regenerative Ranching and Farming -Apprenticeships run 4/20 - 11/20 Applications accepted 10/15/19 - 12/1/19 NAP partners with skilled...
  • PHILANTHROPY DIRECTOR AT WILDERNESS WORKSHOP
    Wilderness Workshop seeks a full time Philanthropy Director to raise funds for our team. Learn more: www.wildernessworkshop.org
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT WITH WESTERN RESOURCE ADVOCATES
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks an enthusiastic and organized problem solver to join our growing team as an Executive Assistant. The Executive Assistant is instrumental...
  • WYOMING OUTDOOR COUNCIL
    Two positions: Development Director OR Development Writer, Communications Director. Full job descriptions at https://wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org/careers.
  • CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    Great Land Trust seeks to hire a Conservation Project Manager. Position is full-time, based in Anchorage, Alaska. First review of applications will be on October...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eagle Valley Land Trust Executive Director Position Description Summary of Position: The Executive Director, working with and reporting to the Board of Directors, has overall...
  • FINANCE & LOGISTICS COORDINATOR
    The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, founded in 1928 as an independent nonprofit organization, is a biological field station located near Crested Butte, Colorado. Our primary...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    See Full Job Description
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Position: Development Coordinator Responsible to: Executive Director Time Commitment: 15-20 hours per week, or as otherwise agreed upon General Description: The Development Coordinator assists the...
  • EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Friends of Cedar Mesa seeks a full-time Education Manager for the Bears Ears Education Center to provide day to day operational and administrative oversight. See...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED SCP SOUTHWEST REGIONAL DIRECTOR
    Seeking to hire an experienced advocate/manager to oversee the organization's sportsmen/women-driven advocacy in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Open until filled
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    for northern AZ collaborative conservation ranchlands group
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Partners are seeking an experienced and energetic Executive Director who is excited about the opportunity to lead our growing organization! A full description of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country News Seeks an Executive Director to advance its mission, grow its audience and influence, and strategically and sustainably guide the organization through a...
  • 2 PROPERTIES ON THE WESTERN EDGE OF THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Organic farm, hot springs, San Francisco River runs through both. [email protected]
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.