I wake up each day torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. It makes it hard to plan my day.

:: E. B. White

Snowmass Creek:  Community-Based Campaign Secures Storage to Protect Stream Flow

Snowmass Creek

Since 1978, the Snowmass-Capitol Creek Caucus has organized and directed a long series of initiatives to protect instream flows in Snowmass Creek and to preserve its aquatic environment and extraordinary riparian ecosystem.

The nearby Town of Snowmass Village and Snowmass Ski Area, while in the separate and much smaller Brush Creek watershed, depend on Snowmass Creek for virtually all domestic water supplies. In 1978 the Army Corps of Engineers granted a Section 404 Clean Water Act permit to the Snowmass Water & Sanitation District which allowed the construction of a trans-basin diversion structure and pump station sending up to 6 cfs of creek water to the Town’s Water Treatment Plant, or to snowmaking equipment, for the expansion of the ski area and the resort. Virtually all of East Snowmass Creek has long been diverted year-round by ditch and pipeline to furnish the main municipal water supply for the town.

Colorado Supreme Court Victory

Litigation in the 1990s culminated in the Colorado Supreme Court’s striking down of the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s attempt to drop minimum winter streamflow in Snowmass Creek to from 12 to 7 cfs to facilitate snowmaking for which the Aspen Skiing Company needed 5 cfs.  Following lengthy negotiations with the CWCB, Water District and Caucus, a “stairstep” instream flow regimen was adopted in 1996. While the stairstep would be set each October based on whether the year was wet, average or dry and was scientifically based, it was still junior to the Water District’s senior rights. “Build-out” of the resort would still imperil Snowmass Creek if “direct draws” based on periods of peak demand occurred when streamflows were perilously low, especially in late winter when ski resorts are fully booked.

In 2000, Public Counsel hired Denver environmental attorney Lori Potter to represent the Caucus and a coalition of national and local conservation groups including American Rivers, the Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited, Audubon, the Wilderness Workshop, Windstar Land Conservancy and High County Citizens Alliance. The coalition petitioned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to modify the 1978 diversion permit so as to add an additional condition — compliance with the 1996 stairstep minimum stream flows, except in true emergencies such as landslide, wildfire or contamination. The Corps accepted jurisdiction under its duty to protect the public interest and ordered scientific monitoring for 10 years to determine whether the diversion and pumping was causing “significant degradation” to the fishery. Each year since 2002 both the Caucus and the Colorado Division of Wildlife conduct studies using “electro fishing” to stun, count and return trout to the stream.

Streamflow Protection Campaign Contintues

Following the drought of 2002-03, Public Counsel and the Caucus retained water engineer Lee Rozaklis to preform an engineering study of how to best protect the creek. The Hydrophere Report in 2004 recommended the creation of an adequate on-mountain raw water storage reservoir and automation of the pump station on Snowmass Creek, in order to allow withdrawals to occur during periods of excess flow rather than at times of peak demand.

Following Town approval of the Aspen Skiing Company/Intrawest’s massive “Base Village” project, the District projected a 25% increase in water demand.  The Caucus stepped up its efforts to encourage the Water District to reduce its 30% loss of treated water in the pressurized grid by better leak management, and to consider water conservation incentives in its rate structure.

In 2007, Public Counsel facilitated an all-day mediation between the Water District and the Ziegler family, providing renown water law mediator and professor Larry MacDonnell.  A conceptual agreement was reached whereby, on a strict timeline and with strict revegetation and other conservation conditions, the District could purchase the small Lake Deborah reservoir on Ziegler lands.  When the proposed and much enlarged 260 acre-foot Ziegler Reservoir came before Pitkin County Commissioners for land use approval in 2009, the Caucus was an active supporter.  The Reservoir was completed and became operational in the summer of 2012 following the one-year delay for the “Snowmastodon” archaeological excavation of well-preserved Ice Age birds, mammals and plants. In 2012, Public Counsel assisted in funding ongoing half-market professional services of Lori Potter and Lee Rozaklis to the Caucus.

Public Counsel acknowledges that the principle funding for this project has been generously provided by the New-Land Foundation.


© David Hiser


© Burnie Arndt


© Gino Hollander