Take the high road and support the Castle Creek hydro plant

Aspen Daily News Staff Report
In crafting our endorsement for Referendum 2C, concerning the future of the city of Aspen’s Castle Creek hydro plant, the Aspen Daily News editorial board, despite serious reservations about the process to date, is persuaded to look at the big picture.

With all the conjecture and heated rhetoric on both sides, the questions that really matter are few, and relatively straight forward. For one, is a responsibly run hydro plant generating renewable local energy in the long-term best interests of this community? The answer, in our estimation, is clearly yes. Why? Because global warming is real, fossil fuels are dirty and we should have as much locally produced renewable energy as possible.

Aspen has done itself well by the investments it has made in hydropower over the years at Ruedi Reservoir and a smaller generator on Maroon Creek, as municipal electric utility customers here enjoy some of the lowest rates in the state. The city’s utility also is within striking distance of its laudable goal of getting 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources.

The other big question is whether the new hydro proposal, which would tap the natural flows of Castle and Maroon creeks, can operate without doing long-term serious damage to the watersheds. This is a much more difficult calculation, but we believe that ultimately the answer is yes. However, there is still much work to be done on this front, which is why our endorsement in favor of Referendum 2C comes with conditions.

The editorial board was tempted to advocate for a “no” vote on the hydro plant, because there are certain aspects of the city’s conduct on the project that we find questionable, at best. The city never should have tried to take the path of least resistance on federal review of the project, which was its goal for years, before being dragged kicking and screaming last year into the current process, in which it will have to submit to a National Environmental Policy Act review. Buying the proposed hydro plant’s turbine, before final details about proper water diversions could be hashed out, also was a stupefying move. And while the $3 million pipeline that would supply the plant with water also serves a safety function, in that it could drain the reservoir quickly if needed in an emergency, trying to pitch this project as a “conduit exemption” to the feds and the local community on the theory that it was an incidental part of the municipal water system was disingenuous.

But with these missteps exposed, we believe the still-evolving process of the hydro plant is in a much better place today. The city now faces public scrutiny every step of the way, as it should. It is looking at a few more years at least of review from the federal government before a license could be granted. And while the details of the “slow start” the city has proposed, which would restrict hydro plant diversions to protect the streams, still need to be ironed out, we recognize that the city is committing itself to something innovative.

While our gut tells us hydro is a good policy, we need to see more detail on exactly how much water the plant can take without harming the streams. Asking how low the streams can go without inflicting permanent damage is the wrong question. We want streams that are allowed to thrive, and clean energy, and we believe we can have both. But we need more science, and much better communication from City Hall, applied to this point. We also don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that the plant will ever reach “full production,” and the city needs to study the impacts of water diversions for much more than the 10 years it has suggested would be adequate.

This brings us to the financial aspects of the plant. While $10.5 million — the current budget estimate of the plant’s total costs — is a lot of money for what will be at most around 5 million kilowatt hours a year of power, it’s still a wise investment in the long run. That’s because a hydropower generator lasts for upwards of 75 years, and it would take about 30 years to pay off the capital investment, even under lower power generation estimates. After that, the community will reap the benefits of inexpensive, clean power. Our children will thank us, much like this generation owes a debt of gratitude to those who had the foresight 30 and 40 years ago to realize that fossil fuels are not the future.

This project also will lock in Aspen’s extensive water rights on the creeks, leaving them in the public’s hands, and not available to those who have the funds and motivation to try and appropriate them for less benign uses, which is a difficult process, but not outside the realm of possibility. And while certain stretches of the creek will be dewatered by the project, it is all returned to the watershed below the proposed facility.

Both sides of the hydro debate have asked, “Who do you trust?” Trust is a tough commodity to come by these days, but we certainly don’t trust shady groups like the anonymous Aspen Citizens Committee, which hides behind glossy, factually challenged fliers to scare us into voting against the project. If this group and others like it truly had the community’s best interests in mind, it would reveal who is footing the bill for tens of thousands of dollars in campaigning and legal services dedicated to stopping this project.

When it comes to trusting the city, we are comforted by the fact that for all its errors, city government is ultimately accountable to the people, who elect its board of directors. We can’t say the same thing about American Rivers, the Western Rivers Institute or Saving Our Streams, which have attacked the project on environmental grounds.

We also are tired of the bad blood and divisiveness this project has engendered. Maybe it’s time for a “beer summit” between Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland and Ken Neubecker, director of Western Rivers Institute. This issue has elevated emotions on both sides, and the project’s proponents and opponents need to learn how to play together in the sandbox. Everyone should get together, and figure out a way to run this project in a way that serves our energy and environmental interests. Even American Rivers admits that responsible hydro is possible on these creeks. Instead of promising to continue fighting the project even if it makes it through the November vote, we want that group and all the others at the table as we design a hydro plant that can truly be a national model.

We are not there yet. But we urge the public to join us in voting “yes” on Referendum 2C, because a “no” vote would likely set the project back years, if not kill it indefinitely. Even though it’s advisory, the results the of the ballot question should be taken seriously by City Hall. If it’s shot down, it would make it very difficult politically to advance the concept. That’s not the right path for this community, and we’d rather continue moving forward to a positive outcome. Protect our water rights, support renewable energy, and forge a path where hydropower and stream health can co-exist. Vote for the Castle Creek hydro plant.

Log onto aspendailynews.com and click “2012 endorsements” on the left-hand side of the home page to see our endorsements to date.