Success! WW Signs agreement to permanently move water rights out of Castle and Maroon Creek Valleys

After two years of advocacy and work with our partner, Western Resource Advocates, we have signed an agreement that would result in the City of Aspen moving and downsizing its current water rights to build dams on Castle and Maroon Creeks. This agreement guarantees that no dams would be built in these iconic valleys. It is the result of nearly two years of extensive negotiations and work with the City and our partners and is a true win-win!

The Details
The agreement stipulates that the City will seek to move a portion of its water rights to a suite of more environmentally-friendly water storage locations within and downstream of Aspen city limits. These include a property the City recently purchased in Woody Creek along with the adjacent gravel quarry, Cozy Point Open Space, and the Aspen Golf Course. Importantly, once the agreement is in effect, the City commits to completely walking away from its right to build dams on Castle and Maroon Creeks, regardless of whether it is successful in moving any of its rights to alternative locations. They also agreed to significantly reduce the amount of water that could be stored under their new rights from roughly 14,000 acre-feet presently to 8,500 acre-feet at the new locations (the bulk of this in Woody Creek).

City staff and council deserve a lot of credit for reaching this agreement. Like so many of us who live here, they value the environment and want to see the water and lands surrounding our community protected and thriving. Their dedication and hard work resulted in an agreement that protects both Aspen’s long-term water supply and Castle and Maroon Creeks. We’ve evolved from opposing parties to partners and are collaborating to increase Aspen’s water supply and flexibility through additional alternative strategies.

Not Quite Final
While Wilderness Workshop, Western Resource Advocates, Pitkin County and two private landowners have all signed documents; there are two additional steps before this is official. First, while City staff and their water attorney have reviewed and approved these documents, City Council has to officially vote to approve on Tuesday, May 30. Second, there are five remaining opposing parties in the case and for the agreements to take affect all parties have to sign off. We’re hopeful that these remaining cases will be resolved in the next month or two.

Why This is a Big Deal
If built, the dams proposed for Maroon and Castle Creeks would have significantly impacted the ecology of the two high mountain creeks and flooded important wildlife and recreation areas in and adjacent to the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area, forever changing two of the most iconic valleys in Colorado. These dams would have cut Castle and Maroon Creeks in two, flooded critical riparian and wetland habitat and brought massive infrastructure and development to two largely pristine valleys. This agreement means that possibility is now off the table!

The proposed Maroon Creek Reservoir Site, now not part of the City of Aspen’s long term reservoir plans.

A map done for the City of Aspen by Deere and Ault showing the two parcels of land in Woody Creek that the city sees as potential water storage sites.

Another potential part of the solution is the use of “agricultural transfer mechanisms,” or ATMs.

Traditionally, as Colorado towns and cities have grown, they have looked to buy water rights from long-established farms and ranches. This “buy and dry” technique has drawn some criticism as undermining state heritage and hurting agriculture. ATMs, on the other hand, would allow the City to lease agricultural water during times of drought, but involve no outright purchase of water rights. In July, along with Western Resource Advocates and the City of Aspen, we submitted a preliminary grant application to the Colorado Water Conservation Board for a study of potential ATM’s in the region. If this collaborative work is successful it would end up providing the City with an “insurance policy” for the driest years without the need to dam local streams or dry up agricultural fields.

WW is eager to work with Aspen to find creative solutions — perhaps several in conjunction — that would allow the City to walk away from any future plans to dam the two iconic creeks. While there is still important and detailed work to be done, we’re very optimistic about the progress made to date to protect the Castle and Maroon Creek Valleys. We’re grateful to Aspen for thinking outside the box and working with us and the other objectors. And all of you who wrote letters, attended meetings and spoke out on this issue deserve a lot of credit for raising the profile of the issue and demanding action – it’s working!

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