Draft application filed for Aspen hydro project

By City of Aspen
October 18, 2010
After working with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for years on the Castle Creek Energy Center, the city of Aspen officially filed its draft application today for a “conduit exemption.”

Approval from FERC is required in order for the city to construct, operate and maintain a hydro facility, and the conduit exemption process was determined to be an appropriate vehicle for seeking FERC approval for a project of this type.

Aspen City Council voted last spring to move forward with the construction of a pipeline that will allow for safe drainage of Thomas Reservoir above the Castle Creek Valley. By delivering water from the reservoir via the pipeline, or conduit, to the Castle Creek hydroelectric plant, the city can take advantage of water for hydropower generation while providing needed flood protection to properties downhill of the Thomas Reservoir, such as the hospital.

“We know to the public this looked like putting the cart before the horse… building a pipeline before having FERC approval,” said Phil Overeynder, director of utilities and environmental initiatives. “However, even if FERC doesn’t approve the hydro project, we need this pipeline for safety purposes alone, while being optimistic that it will serve dual purposes if and when FERC does approve a hydro use.”

A 2007 vote by Aspen citizens overwhelmingly supported the Castle Creek hydroelectric project, with more than 70 percent of the public voting for it. The project would produce 1.175 megawatts of environmentally responsible electricity annually. That power production will prevent more than 5,000 tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere each year.

“The city has been working with consultants on the hydro project ever since the 2007 voter approval,” Overeynder said. “During their work, the consultants discovered the need for a pipeline to safely drain Thomas Reservoir, citing changes in engineering practices and safety measures from when the reservoir was built in the 1960s.”

The consultants also recommended that because of the need to create a conduit to safely drain the reservoir, the city could be eligible for a conduit exemption for the hydro project based on federal laws and regulations.

Karl Kumli, an attorney specializing in public utility and water law, said the city of Aspen held the FERC application public process open much longer than required by law, adding that in his nearly 30 years of practice, the city’s efforts to assure stream health exceeded all others.

“The city held the process open longer with the goal of getting thorough comments from the public and receiving thorough environmental analysis. The city made great efforts to work with federal, state and local stakeholders and believes that the project is improved as a result,” Kumli said. “The project as now conceived meets the twin goals of assuring stream health while reducing the city's dependence on fossil fuels by generating renewable energy.”

A conduit exemption can be a more expeditious, less expensive way to bring a hydro project online than a new hydro license application with FERC. The environmental requirements are stringent for a conduit exemption. Although an environmental impact statement (EIS) or environmental assessment (EA) may not be required, the same topics are included in exemption review as are required for analysis under an EIS or EA. If Aspen had applied for a new license instead of a conduit exemption, FERC may or may not have required an EA or EIS. If an EA or EIS was undertaken, FERC would have overseen it. This would have resulted in considerable expense and delay, but would not have offered more environmental protections.

The City of Aspen has been undertaking a vigorous environmental analysis of the hydroelectric project. As part of the FERC application, Aspen has consulted with the Colorado Division of Wildlife on the hydro project since July of 2008 and has received input from the public and interested parties such as Trout Unlimited, the Roaring Fork Conservancy, Wilderness Workshop, the U.S. Forest Service and many others in a series of meetings, as well as in written form.

“The reason we took so long to submit an application is because we were conducting studies and doing local due diligence on the project, ultimately making it a better project overall,” Overeynder said.

The city followed the Division of Wildlife’s requests for additional studies and hired an ecological consulting firm to perform additional measurements and studies on stream flows in Castle Creek. The results of the study showed that more water should be left in the stream than is currently required by the state (the study suggested a 13.3 cfs stream protection flow, while the state requires 12 cfs). The city has committed to never dropping below the 13.3 cfs threshold, and has also agreed to an unprecedented 10 year monitoring program of stream health, overseen by the Division of Wildlife.

“That way if we see a problem, we can fix it, because the last thing we want to do is harm stream health,” Overeynder said. “Science says we can operate a hydroplant and protect the stream, and we feel we don’t have to make an ‘either/or choice’ between the environment and green power.”

The environmental analysis Aspen has undertaken to date is essentially the same analysis that would be required for an EA or EIS. The only difference is, the City is overseeing the studies, which means more of a commitment to local environmental issues, a quicker project time frame and much less money.

“If FERC had overseen these environmental analyses, there was no guarantee that they would seek increased instream flow or increased environmental protections,” Overeynder said.

In fact, the City’s experience with FERC on Maroon Creek was just the opposite. For the Maroon Creek hydroelectric plant, FERC required instream flows that were lower that the state’s requirements, meaning less stringent environmental controls. The City, however, has opted to voluntarily uphold the state’s higher standards.

Here are just a few of the changes made to date directly in response to public input on the Castle Creek Hydro Plant:

* We heard there was a concern from the public that we didn’t have enough data on fish and stream health. So, we hired biologist Dr. Bill Miller to perform a study that looked directly at fish and stream health.
* We heard from the Colorado Division of Wildlife that they wanted more information (and updated information) on the minimum stream flows in areas where the project would operate since the most recent state stream flow requirements are from the 1970s. So, we asked Dr. Miller to come up with suggested minimum stream flows based on the current methodology agreed upon and used by the state.
* We heard from neighbors they were concerned about noise from the proposed hydro plant. So, we enlisted the help of a noise expert to help design the building so it would meet strict noise standards. Some design elements include making it so there are no windows that open, and the door only opens in a direction away from homes.
* We heard from neighbors that they were still worried about noise. So, we wrote into the project plan for approval by council that we would have monitoring after construction and gave our commitment that we will meet noise standards if for any reason the noise expert was wrong (hey, no one is infallible).
* We heard there should be stream monitoring after the project was installed… again no one is infallible, what if Dr. Miller was wrong… So, we collaborated with the Colorado Division of Wildlife to create a robust 10 year monitoring program for stream health that would analyze any stream health impacts as a result of the hydro project. We would then react accordingly.
* We heard that the City shouldn’t oversee the stream health monitoring program since it has a financial interest in hydropower from the project. So, we are having the state oversee the monitoring program to have outside technical experts (with no financial interest) take a look and respond. This is absolutely unprecedented in Colorado and may set a replicable standard for others in the future.

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