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