Federal Energy Regulatory Commission officials don’t normally travel across the country to attend an informational public meeting concerning a 1.17-megawatt hydropower proposal.
But Jim Fargo, a project manager with the FERC based in Washington, D.C., said the city of Aspen’s proposal is on the agency’s radar to a greater extent than other small projects. For one, he said he’s seen in submitted public comments, and in the local press, sufficient confusion about the federal licensing process the city is entering. So he gave a presentation at Tuesday’s public meeting to the 50 or so gathered on the “traditional licensing process,” explaining how it requires a vetting of all studies presented and a review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). At best, the remainder of the licensing process will take another two-and-a-half to three years, he said.
Later in the process, people can formally contest information and file protests. However, “because of the level of controversy on this project, it’s being treated like it’s already a contested proceeding,” Fargo said.
Anyone is welcome to contact him at his office with process questions — (202) 502-6095 or firstname.lastname@example.org  — but he said he can’t debate the merits of the project due to the formal nature of the proceedings.
At this stage in the game, the city is still in the pre-application phase. Within 12 to 18 months, it will officially submit its license application and go through a NEPA process, requiring either an environmental assessment document or an environmental impact statement. But at this point, the feds are interested in public and stakeholder comments on what else still needs to be done — as far as studies conducted or data collected — to fully understand the project’s environmental impacts, said meeting facilitator Pamela Britton of Community Engagement Associates, who was hired by the city.
The city is proposing to build a hydropower plant that would take up to 52 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water from Castle and Maroon creeks. The project has a budget of $10.5 million, of which $6.9 million has been spent, according to city officials.
The city was pressured to pull its original application for the project due to process concerns, and a group of homeowners along the creeks are suing the city, claiming that its water rights for the project are abandoned.
Tom Hirsch, a homeowner along Castle Creek who has become involved in the project, said there needs to be a thorough analysis of the project’s impacts on the stretch of wetlands on lower Maroon Creek. Water taken from Maroon Creek for the hydro plant would never be returned to that stream, and instead would go back to Castle Creek.
Hirsch also emphasized that stream health monitoring, which the city has committed to do for 10 years, must go on longer, as any potential harmful impacts from the project aren’t likely to show themselves right away, he said.
“We may learn later that there are impacts that we haven’t studied,” he said.
Tuesday’s meeting followed a field trip with FERC officials and about 25 others to five sites associated with the city’s proposal: the diversion facilities on Castle and Maroon creeks, where the city takes its water for consumptive and hydro power purposes; the existing Maroon Creek hydro facility; the water treatment plant at Thomas Reservoir; and the site of the proposed new hydro plant under the Castle Creek bridge.
At the Castle Creek diversion dam, Kerry Sundeen, the city’s hydrology consultant, said the stream was running at about 39 cfs Tuesday morning above the city’s water intake and at 32 cfs below, and that just over 6 cfs was being diverted to the city’s water treatment plant.
The city is proposing a “slow start” for the hydro plant, where the plant would be operated at 66 percent of its full capacity for the first few years in order to better study its impacts on the stream.
Under the “slow start,” the city would not allow hydro diversions to drop the water level in the creeks to below the 25th percentile of average stream flows taken during a 25-year study period, Sundeen said.
For April 10, a 25th percentile stream flow at the Castle Creek diversion would be 25 cfs, Sundeen said, meaning that if the plant was up and running that day, the city could divert an additional 7 cfs for hydropower under the slow start.