The city and opponents in a water court case concerning long-held rights for reservoirs on Castle and Maroon creeks say they are close to a potential settlement that would have the city pursue water storage in other locations.
A status conference was held Thursday involving a state water court referee overseeing the city’s cases and 10 parties that have lined up to oppose extension of the conditional water rights held since 1965 for a 4,500-acre-foot reservoir on Maroon Creek near the confluence of East and West Maroon creeks and a 9,000-acre-foot reservoir on Castle Creek, about 2 miles below Ashcroft.
The case has been ongoing for about a year. The city’s utilities portfolio manager Margret Medellin said after Thursday’s call she was hopeful that the city “will have reached agreement with everyone” before the next status conference in mid February, or soon thereafter.
“Things are progressing toward settlement,” she said.
Paul Noto, an attorney representing opposing parties in the case including environmental groups that don’t want to see dams on the high-mountain streams, agreed.
“The opposers all said we are making progress toward settlement,” he said.
Specific details of the settlement remain under wraps. The city on Dec. 8 made a settlement proposal, according to Medellin. Multiple parties have responded with feedback.
Generally, the settlement would be predicated on the city agreeing to file an application to change the location of its storage rights so they would be moved out of the Castle and Maroon creek valleys. The city would still aim to be able to use its water from Castle and Maroon creeks to fill a reservoir in a different location.
Medellin noted that, when the city moved ahead in October 2016 with its diligence filing on the Castle and Maroon creek reservoirs, city council directed the staff to investigate alternate locations and lower levels of water storage.
“That’s what we’ve spent the last year doing,” Medellin said.
Working off an initial list of eight potential alternate water storage sites, the city has been focusing on a parcel of land it is under contract to purchase near the Elam gravel pit in Woody Creek. The city believes that it could someday build a reservoir using what’s now the gravel pit and eventually expand that reservoir onto the adjacent site. Such a vessel could hold 8,000 acre feet of water.
City officials say they are at a disadvantage without water storage — all municipal supply currently is drawn directly from Castle and Maroon creeks — because climate change is likely to change the amount and timing of the annual runoff.
“The great value of [a conditional water right] is that it helps you plan for an unknown future,” Medellin said.
Predicating a settlement on an agreement to file an application to change water storage locations is different that having that application approved. An application to actually build a reservoir on the Woody Creek site or anywhere else would likely attract opposition from a host of different parties and there is “no certainty” that such an effort would be successful, said Scott Miller, the city’s public works director.
However, the pending settlement involves Pitkin County agreeing it would not oppose the city’s application to change locations.
“The settlement proposal does [involve] a suggested methodology for a change case,” said Laura Makar, the assistant county attorney. In layman’s terms, that means that, “if the county were to participate in the settlement, I would anticipate the county would not oppose the change case.”
She noted that the county would maintain its land use review authority on any potential reservoir the city would seek to build in Woody Creek or anywhere else in its jurisdiction.
“I think the city has engaged in good faith settlement discussions, has listened to the opposers’ concerns and is trying to be responsive to those concerns,” Makar said. While the discussions are not yet at the finish line, they are getting close, she said.
Tyler Christoff, the city’s deputy director of utilities, said the city hopes to turn “opposers into supporters for this plan” so those new advocates can “reach out to their stakeholders and increase the influence we have to turn this thing in the right direction.”
A sticking point in the negotiations going forward appears to be what happens if an attempt to move the conditional rights for Castle and Maroon creek reservoirs somewhere else is not successful. Miller said the city has agreed already that it is willing to walk away completely from a Maroon Creek reservoir, which would partially inundate federally designated wilderness and be in view of the Maroon Bells. The city may still see a smaller reservoir on Castle Creek as feasible.
Medellin said, “We hope we don’t get pushed back to building those reservoirs. If we can’t find an alternative that works we are back up in the valleys and we really hope that is not where we end up. We will do it if we are forced to but we are trying to do something better.”