Could Aspen Water-Rights Filing Lead to a Dam Threatening Maroon Bells?

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On Halloween, the scariest day of the year, Aspen officials filed legal paperwork preserving the resort town's conditional rights to make use of water from two of the last free-flowing creeks in the Roaring Fork watershed. A mundane matter for most municipalities, perhaps, but not in Aspen, where the move immediately triggered a petition calling on city leaders to abandon any plans for massive, 155-foot-tall dams on the creeks that would inundate portions of one of the state's most-photographed natural places.

There are  no immediate plans for such dams. Officials have said they just want to protect their options for future water storage as current supplies come under threat from a growing state population and climate change. But in order to "perfect" the water rights claimed in Monday's filing in state water court, the town would have to proceed to create reservoirs along Maroon and Castle creeks.

That means dams. According to maps commissioned by Aspen Journalism, the projects would flood a scenic area known as "the wedding meadow" and also threaten the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area — a sticking point that would require an unprecedented federal dispensation to proceed.

Aspen's deputy director of utilities has spoken in favor of "small" reservoirs, and others have pushed for the town to protect its water rights under the state's use-it-or-lose-it water-law requirements. But opponents say that the city has little data on how climate change would affect stream flows in Maroon and Castle creeks, that the dams are unnecessary, and that the results would be environmentally disastrous.

The petition being circulated by the Wilderness Workshop declares, "Aspen’s own study shows that these two reservoirs are unneeded to meet future water demands under numerous population and climate scenarios. The City should immediately abandon the rights to these two outdated reservoirs, which provide no legal protections for the creeks or the water within them."

Most of Aspen's current water storage consists of snow pack. The water court filing is essentially a declaration of intent to develop water rights in the two creeks — but the only way to secure those rights over time is, it seems, to be dammed.

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