Aspen and Hydropower: What the Men’s Journal Story Leaves Out


Aspen could be a real leader in environmental sustainability, but not until its leaders embrace the restoration and protection of water resources.

A consistent refrain in Nathaniel Rich’s recent article in Men’s Journal entitled “Aspen and the End of Snow” is the concept that Aspen and only Aspen can lead the world in stopping climate change. “Who ought to lead if not Aspen? Bangladesh?” or “we need to lead by example because we can” or describing Aspen’s global importance former mayor, Mick Ireland explains “Bill Clinton asks me to lunch, that does not happen in Carbondale.”

While these quotes may make you squirm at their arrogance if you do not call Aspen home, they hold a modicum of truth. Aspen does have the talent, resources and time to address important global issues and implement innovative local solutions.

This is why it was so important that the community voted against the Castle Creek Hydroelectric Project in November 2012. City leaders had pushed the project in an effort to reduce carbon emissions. But the project would have produced a miniscule amount of power while reducing Castle and Maroon creeks to mere trickles.

The project never made economic sense. In fact, it would have been among the most expensive energy projects (at taxpayer expense) per installed kilowatt in the world without meaningfully contributing to global climate change mitigation.

If this project had been developed as the city intended it would have set a terrible precedent that could have harmed rivers and streams not only in Aspen, but across the country. The process by which the city of Aspen chose to pursue this project could be characterized as “worst practices” (which eventually led to a provision in a hydropower bill that would prevent this type of behavior). The city attempted to mischaracterize the project to avoid independent environmental review, constructed important components of the project prior to approval which is clearly against federal regulations, and dismissed legitimate concerns by citizens as NIMBY or ‘Not in My Back Yard.”

It is true that the debate over the merits of the Castle Creek Hydroelectric project divided the community. National organizations with decades of experience working with hydropower companies to improve operations for recreation and the environment like American Rivers, Trout Unlimited, the Sierra Club, and the Audubon Society, along with local conservation organizations, scientists, and taxpayer groups strongly opposed the project because of the harm it would cause to the creeks, its cost, and the precedent it would have set. Project proponents including Aspen’s SkiCo and the City of Aspen supported the project because of its symbolism in reducing global climate change.

The Community voted the project down because the people of Aspen, like the rest of our society, have come to place a higher value on healthy rivers for clean water, fishing, and boating – values that sustain healthy economies and communities. Hydropower projects that disproportionately impact the environment are no longer necessary. Building a marginal, uneconomic, low-power hydro project that will cause serious harm to two creeks is not a good strategy for fighting climate change. Hydropower can be part of the solution but we have to do it smarter. Cost-effective alternatives exist, like improving efficiency on existing hydro projects and installing hydropower on existing dams and irrigation ditches.

Unfortunately, this is not the only example of Aspen’s SkiCo supporting a project or policy that would harm rivers. SkiCo, the National Ski Areas Association, and an assortment of Big Agriculture trade associations support a bill known as the “Water Rights Protection Act” that will hamstring the abilities of federal agencies to manage water on public lands for the benefit of fish, wildlife and recreation. The bill represents one of the biggest attacks on our public lands and water in recent times all the while having the cover of SkiCo.

Aspen can be a real leader in environmental sustainability, but not until its leaders embrace the restoration and protection of water resources.

7 Responses to “Aspen and Hydropower: What the Men’s Journal Story Leaves Out”

Emily Kessler

I work at a ski area but also know and love the importance of healthy creeks and rivers for recreations and healthy fisheries. It needs to be a balance. Try going solar Aspen to achieve your postivr impacts on the environment instead of installing more concrete to get little power and negatively impacting the “other” seasons. Mountain people want to enjoy all the seasons:)

chuck dunn


    Ken Neubecker

    Most of the water would make it back, but many miles downstream, leaving a long reach dangerously de-watered. The water diverted from Maroon Creek would never return as it would be sent to Castle Creek. The City tried to say that the water from Maroon Creek would “return to the Roaring Fork via Castle Creek”. But the water was never taken from the Roaring Fork, so it couldn’t “return”. Its like saying the water diverted from the Colorado River to Denver will “return” to the ocean via the Mississippi… doesn’t help the Colorado, or Maroon Creek, at all.

Don Swanz

No one appreciates the value of water until the well is dry. Don and I CAN! :-))

Matt Rice

You are right that water flows through a generation system and back into the river. It is a matter of how far downstream the water is returned to the river which often results in naturally and recreationally valuable sections of rivers that are “bypassed” to maximize hydropower generation. In the case of the Castle Creek Hydroelectric Project, a significant percentage of water would have been diverted from Castle and Maroon Creeks through pipes and returned to the river a few miles downstream into Castle Creek permanently removing water from Maroon Creek and leaving an important section of Castle Creek “bypassed” or in a permanent state of low flow.

Mick Ireland

Mr. Koch and his donees continue to misrepresent the facts in this matter. I stand by my statements in favor of this project and the opinion of objective scientists who found this project would not be harmful.

Mr. Rice has never ever disclosed where the money to pay him or this campaign originated. Our side disclosed every penny and every donor.

I suppose we are to believe it is just a coincidence that the litigants who filed against the City owned water rights in the affected streams and will have better access to diversions in the future once the city is out of the way.

Aspen is a leader in environmental protection in many ways that the corporate donors to this campaign do not appreciate or emulate.


Former mayor
Mick Ireland