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The environment desk at Aspen Public Radio covers issues in the Roaring Fork Valley and throughout the state of Colorado including water use and quality, impact of recreation, population growth and oil and gas development. APR’s Environment Reporter is Elizabeth Stewart-Severy.

Running for the hills: City officials fear population growth

Courtesy of demography.dola.colorado.gov

As the national conversation about climate change heats up, the City of Aspen is turning its eye toward planning for a warmer, drier future. Aspen and other resort towns face a unique challenge in predicting just how many people might be living here in decades to come.  

When city staffers presented their recommendation that the council try to keep conditional water rights on Castle and Maroon Creeks, much of the conversation focused on fears about future demands for municipal water. Ashley Perl, climate action manager for the city, addressed council in late September.

“There is this kind of unique population growth that we may see here in Aspen. It’s not going to be people moving here from out of state and buying homes and building buildings. What it’s going to be is people who already have a place here,” Perl said. “We’re going to see a non-traditional population growth in seeing more of those people here year-round, or at least more seasons out of the year.”
The theory comes from wildlife biology: As temperatures increase, cold-weather creatures move up the mountain — and so maybe that applies to humans as well. But so far, this phenomenon is purely anecdotal.

Margaret Medellin manages water for the city. She said the utility department is hearing from property managers that second-homeowners, like those escaping really hot temperatures in Texas, are staying longer in Aspen. That could impact water consumption.

“When you sell a tap, you don’t sell it with the fine print that you can only use it two weeks out of the year,” Medellin said. “We really do need to be prepared that if someone comes and decides they want to stay full time, that they can.”

This means reevaluating the data, Medellin said.

Right now, the city’s utility and sanitation systems can handle around 35,000 people a day. The state’s demographer doesn’t think we’ll hit that number any time soon.

That data shows that Pitkin County’s growth has slowed significantly since 2000, and is expected to remain far below the statewide average. Projections based on births, deaths, job growth and historical trends show that Pitkin County will grow at about 1 percent a year for the next 25 years, adding just under 5,000 residents by 2040.

But Medellin said these projections aren’t totally reassuring.

“Really, the story is just as important as the numbers, and if we’re starting to enter a period now where trends are changing, we really just want to understand that,” Medellin said.

The combination of warmer days and people staying longer, which has been a critical part of Aspen’s economic marketing, means a re-evaluation is necessary. And the people responsible for providing electricity and water say that needs to happen now.

“This is the time to prepare for the Aspen of 2065,” Medellin said. “Today’s the day we prepare for that. We can’t wait for the future to put in place the resiliency that’s needed.”

For the city, at least part of that equation is water storage — just like 50 years ago when population concerns led to Aspen securing the rights to build dams on Castle and Maroon creeks.

Aspen native Elizabeth Stewart-Severy is excited to be making a return to both the Red Brick, where she attended kindergarten, and the field of journalism. She has spent her entire life playing in the mountains and rivers around Aspen, and is thrilled to be reporting about all things environmental in this special place. She attended the University of Colorado with a Boettcher Scholarship, and graduated as the top student from the School of Journalism in 2006. Her lifelong love of hockey lead to a stint working for the Colorado Avalanche, and she still plays in local leagues and coaches the Aspen Junior Hockey U-19 girls.
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