Water rights: Why does the City of Aspen want to buy land in Woody Creek?

Dec 5, 2017

The site in Woody Creek where the City of Aspen plans to buy land for a reservoir
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy

The City of Aspen has plans to buy land in Woody Creek that could one day become a reservoir, and officials hope to fill that reservoir using water rights the city has owned on Castle and Maroon creeks since 1971. But major questions remain about if this is possible — or necessary.

Even in a dry November, creeks and streams cascade toward Aspen from all sides. The Roaring Fork River snakes through town, after picking up water from the valleys and gulches up Independence Pass. Closer to town, there’s Hunter Creek, the iconic Castle and Maroon creeks and eventually Woody Creek joins the Roaring Fork, as well.


But still, officials with the City of Aspen aren’t convinced this is enough to guarantee a consistent water supply in a warmer, drier future. Margaret Medellin with the city’s water department said that the ability to store water — in case those streams run dry — is a key component of Aspen’s planning.

“Right now we have 10 acre-feet,” Medellin explained. That’s like a 10-foot deep pool the size of a football field, and if Aspen was cut off from its water sources — Castle and Maroon creeks — that reserve wouldn’t last one summer day.

The controversial plans to put reservoirs up Castle and Maroon creeks have prompted many statements of opposition in water court.
Credit Courtesy of Wilderness Workshop

Aspen has water rights to store more than a thousand times that amount — over 13,000 acre-feet on Castle and Maroon creeks. These are two of Aspen’s most treasured scenic spots, and reservoirs here would sit in a designated wilderness area. Last year, officials filed in water court to hold on to those rights, and the city faces opposition from nearby landowners, the U.S. Forest Service, environmental groups and more.

Aspen City Council members said they agree that these are not the right spots for dams and reservoirs, but they also say the city needs storage. Medellin and others are hopeful to transfer those water rights downstream, to what they say is a more suitable spot.



Just outside of Woody Creek, on a windy stretch of shrubland next to a working gravel pit, the city has 63 acres of property under contract. Officials hope to also eventually acquire the gravel pit itself. Medellin said a reservoir here would offer some serious peace of mind to water managers like her.

The City of Aspen wants to buy land for the reservoir in the shrubland (right). Officials hope to buy the gravel pit one day, as well.
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy

“Just knowing that we had water, you know, instead of running and always hoping we had water,” Medellin said.


But one detail stands out at the gravel pit: There’s no water — no nearby creeks or streams. It’s bone dry.  

"That's a problem, I think,” said Paul Noto, a water attorney who represents three of the parties who are opposing the city in the Maroon and Castle creeks water court cases. “How are you going to fill them?"

The city doesn’t have a plan yet for how it would actually get the water to this location, or how the water would make it back uphill to Aspen. And this fact isn’t lost on some valley residents, like Steve Skinner.

The City of Aspen has two properties in Woody Creek under contract, to use for potential future water storage.
Credit City of Aspen

“Really? Six miles away from Aspen, we’re going to build a reservoir and then figure out a way to pump it back up?” Skinner said. “That seems really goofy.”

Plus, Skinner is not convinced that Aspen needs water storage at all.

A study done in 2016 showed that Aspen likely won’t need reservoirs to keep the taps flowing. But a new analysis this year shows that in several climate change scenarios, there likely could be water shortages.

"Our water system can't take much unexpected impacts to the system,” Medellin explained.

The city will have to demonstrate that it needs storage to successfully transfer the water rights out of Castle and Maroon creeks to Woody Creek. And that’s not the only obstacle.

"There's no doubt in my mind that they will face significant opposition from other water users," Noto said.

Anyone who got in line for water after the city will want their turn. It’s sort of like when you get out of the cafeteria line in elementary school. The kids behind you aren’t happy when you try to jump back in the same spot. And one of the kids in line right behind the City of Aspen is the state of Colorado.

"So they'd be sort of claim-jumping the state's instream flow water right," Noto explained.  

That right is meant to protect the environment, and Noto said these tend to be complex, significant rights in the eyes of water court. And there are others who have a right after 1971 but before 2018 who could also oppose the move.

Cynthia Covell is a water attorney who represents the City of Aspen. She’s been involved in similar cases where cities have moved their storage rights and given the uncertainties related to climate change, she said her advice to all clients is the same.

“You need to have as many options available as you reasonably can to deal with climate change,” Covell said.

And the City of Aspen is not taking any chances.