Saving water in Aspen made good financial sense but also girded town for argument
by Allen Best
In 1974, Aspen’s future seemed clear enough. The town was growing briskly, the ski industry booming, and by the 1990s the town would need to make major investments to provide water for the future.
With that in mind, town officials filed for storage rights on two upstream creeks, Castle and Maroon, where the municipality already had significant senior water rights. Had the town gone ahead with construction of those reservoirs, the cost today would be roughly $50 million.
Instead, in about 1994, Mayor John Bennett and council members chose a different approach. They would emphasize water savings.
Phil Overeynder, who was the city’s utility manager then, says he has calculated that today water rates would need to be quadrupled to pay for the reservoirs and other infrastructure.
But there was another reason for Aspen to pursue conservation beginning in the 1990s. Overeynder said improved efficiency bolstered the argument that Eastern Slope water providers needed to make do with what they had before expanding diversions. In his eyes, Eastern Slope water providers still have not done everything they can. “Not to the extent it was promised 40 years ago,” he says.
For Aspen, improving water efficiency has several components. The city couldn’t account for 55 percent of the water being sent to customers. There were leaks, lots of them. It was, says Overeynder, a third-world water system. But a lot of water was used to bleed pipes. Water mains were buried deep, but the service lines to individual houses were within the frost line. During winter, homeowners left their faucets running, to avoid freezing. It was city policy to overlook that use.
Over time, these inefficient uses have been eliminated. The rate structure was revised to strongly recommend efficiency.
From 450 gallons per capita daily in 1974, use peaked in 1993 at 516 gallons.
Last year, it was 164 gallons per capita daily.
Use still spikes in summer, but not as much. The water treatment plant expanded in the 1980s has surplus capacity.