Aspen City Council put off the debate on approving infrastructure related to the Castle and Maroon creek hydropower plant until July, while a representative of a national rivers conservation group said his organization would “use all means necessary” to stop the project if the city continues to seek a small conduit exemption from the federal government.
Council on Monday agreed to table a rezoning and land use application for the “Castle Creek Energy Center” until July 11, giving time to a separate process that is attempting to mediate differences between independent experts, project opponents and city officials on the hydro proposal.
A mediation meeting is currently scheduled for the end of the month, although city officials and independent experts hired by the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board are attempting to reconcile a 30 percent difference in assumptions about the amount of water in the creeks at diversion points.
Speaking during Monday’s public comment, Matt Rice, the Colorado conservation director for American Rivers, said the project is “clearly not” qualified for a small conduit exemption — an approval process through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for which the city has applied.
Conduit exemptions are granted for small hydropower projects that use existing or planned infrastructure that is part of a municipal water system. Projects granted conduit exemptions do not have to go through the potentially more rigorous full FERC licensing process, and the exemption is good in perpetuity.
Aspen is applying for a conduit exemption since the project would use a newly-constructed drain line that runs from Thomas Reservoir located above Aspen Valley Hospital to the would-be site of the hydro turbine below Castle Creek Bridge.
City officials claim the multi-million-dollar pipe is needed to drain the reservoir in the event of flooding conditions, but critics believe no emergency exists and the pipe has been built purely for hydropower under false pretenses.
The water that would run the turbine — up to 52 cubic feet per second — would then return to Castle Creek as a protected in-stream flow, which the city claims is a “point of municipal consumption” as required by conduit exemption guidelines.
A terrible precedent would be set if the city is granted the conduit exemption, providing other hydropower developers with a model for making an end-run around the proper FERC process and potentially harming streams nationwide, Rice said.
“Because of this precedent, we cannot let this happen,” said Rice. American Rivers is based in Washington, D.C., but has 3,000 members in Colorado, Rice said.
American Rivers would be willing to work with the city on developing “responsible” hydropower if it takes the conduit exemption off the table, Rice said.