Councilmember Ann Mullins has served on the Aspen City Council since 2013. She is an architect by profession, and has also been a ski instructor at Buttermilk Ski Area. Ann received her bachelor’s degree in Mathematics from Wells College in New York and a Master’s in Landscape Architecture from Utah State University. Ann became a WaterNow Alliance member in March 2018.
Why did you initially decide to run for office in Aspen in 2013? What issues were you most interested in addressing if elected?
I became very interested in city development after cofounding Civitas, an urban design and landscape architecture firm in Denver in 1984. When I moved to Aspen, I was first appointed to the Historic Preservation Commission and worked quite a bit with the sittin City Council. Historic preservation is a passion of mine, but it’s kind of insular so I wanted to see how else I could affect change in the city. I started seriously thinking about running for council when a group of people that I had great respect for asked me to consider running.
While my first interest as a City Council member was the built environment and historic preservation, as I’ve grown into the role I’ve realized that these, and all issues, are a mix of social, economic, and environmental issues. Everything is intertwined and affects one another. So my focus has changed a bit to focus more on environmental and social issues in town.
Where does Aspen receive its water supply from?
Our surface water comes from Maroon Creek and Castle Creek and it’s primarily snowmelt. Our water is minimally treated because it’s fairly clean, so when you turn on the tap in Aspen you’re basically getting water directly from 11,000 ft. altitude snowmelt. This can be pretty exciting and enlightening to people who come to Aspen from a big city.
The City of Aspen has very limited water storage capacity. What programs do you credit with helping Aspen to maintain a sustainable and resilient water supply despite this limited storage?
The first thing we’ve done is looked at alternative storage capacity. In 1967, there was a storage proposal put in place that would have required dams on Castle Creek and Maroon Creek Council. This proposal was in place until last year but our council determined it wasn’t something we wanted to do given the environmental consequences.
We’re now in the midst of transferring our transitional water rights to in-situ, underground storage. We have a couple of operating gravel basins which will store the water we need without impacting the environment.
With some alternative storage capacity in place, we’ve also done a tremendous job on conservation and efficiency to help meet our projected water needs over the next 50 years.
Aspen approved its first conservation plan in 1996 as part of a larger water management plan, which was pretty progressive for that period. Then, in 2006, we added a utilities efficiency division and in September 2015 we adopted the Roaring Fork Watershed Regional efficiency plan and the Aspen municipal water efficiency plan. Both plans serve to identify our challenges and to expand on existing measures.
We have a number of programs in place to stretch existing supplies and to encourage efficiency. We have a new landscape ordinance, we do free irrigation assessments for homeowners and provide grants to help them with efficiency improvements, we give away rain sensors, we have free water saving devices for commercial buildings, and we have tiered rates to incentivize lower water usage. Most recently, we approved the implementation of Advanced Metering Infrastructure.
You were instrumental in encouraging Aspen to adopt a pilot landscape ordinance last year. What was the major driver behind this ordinance?
This ordinance came out of the Roaring Fork Watershed Regional efficiency plan which identified ways for the Roaring Fork Valley to become more efficient. One of the facts that came out of it – which was shocking - was that 20% of our water was used indoors and 80% was used outdoors. This discrepancy was mainly because we’d focused a lot of our attention on indoor use and not on outdoor efficiency opportunities.
Creating a landscape ordinance seemed like an easy target to help reduce water use. In 2017, we started a 1-year pilot program which we recently extend to 18 months. The result of this ordinance will be much more efficient irrigation systems, combined with the use of climate-appropriate plants and user education for the amount of water needed. We’ve adopted a landscape water budget of approximately 7.5 gallons annually per square foot which the homeowner can distribute on their property however they want.
Our city staff have been very helpful in working with developers and homeowners to implement this ordinance. So far, the majority of people have come in with plans that are on par with the water budget or under budget. We’ve had a few that are over-budget, but we’ve worked with them to see how we can help them reduce their water demand.
We project that successfully implementing this program on new properties and existing properties – which will be triggered by only a minimal amount of outdoor modification – can reduce our outdoor water usage by 60%.
WaterNow Alliance recently taught a Qualified Water Efficient Landscaper (QWEL) course sponsored by the City of Aspen for local landscape professionals. Why do you think it’s important for local landscape professionals to receive this training?
First, we require a QWEL professional certified to perform irrigation system audits as part of our landscape ordinance. We realized that we didn’t have any certified irrigation audit professionals in the area so we needed to do this to enact our ordinance.
But this training also helps landscape professionals with hands-on demonstrations and education, including plant selection and the various microclimates and hydrozones that should be considered to be most efficient with your irrigation system. We know that we need to advance sustainable landscaping training techniques to help use our water resources more efficiently so that we can preserve them for the future.
How do Aspen’s water utility staff and councilmembers work together in order to make important decisions about the utility?
All the councilmembers are very concerned about the health of our community, the environmental health of the region, and the recreation-based economy. All of these things are very affected by water, or lack thereof. When we sit at that table, we need to set policy to manage, improve, and affect all three of those things.
Similarly, our staff - whom I’m highly complementary of - are dedicated, smart, and well-informed. They help us identify current issues and problems and they work with us to develop and implement solutions. The Council, and not just the current members, has a long history of successful collaboration with the staff.
I think there are some compromises people make to live in Aspen, whether it’s housing or transportation issues. But everyone who lives here, from the people, to the Council and the staff, live here because they love the area, the outdoor recreation or the very culturally-rich small town and care a lot about the city.
Has the city been impacted by the effects of climate change?
Yes, and it’s right in our faces. We’re not saying “climate changes is happening around the world,” it’s happening right here and it’s already had a very direct impact. We now have 28 fewer frost free days since 1980. With the warming temperatures, runoff is much sooner. The snowpack is gone by the end of May where it used to be mid-July. The rising temperatures are exacerbated by dust storms which are becoming more common as the drought extends across the country. The dust will come from Utah or further away and settle on the mountain, the dark-colored dust attracts more heat and increases the rate of snowmelt. By July, this source of water has pretty much dried up which is when we have our busiest tourist season and the most demand for water.
Not only does climate change affect the snowpack, but we also see it in the vegetation. We have a pine beetle infestation that, in the past, has gone dormant or died off during the cold winter months but now they survive year-round. We’re also seeing very invasive weeds growing now that have been controlled by the climate in the past.
The unpredictability of climate change is very challenging. Some years we’ll have a really big snow year but it will runoff quickly or, like this past year, we saw very little snow.
It’s definitely having an impact on recreation in town and on our economy. This year, lodging during the winter months was down significantly because of the limited snowpack. The rafting season was pretty much over by July because there just wasn’t enough water. The Frying Pan River is known for its fishing but as temperatures go up and the water gets lower, the river becomes too hot for the trout so we’re damaging or losing the fisheries.
Why do you think that sustainable water management in Aspen and Western Colorado is so important? And what are the main challenges to achieving a sustainable water future?
The impacts from climate change are mainly seen through water – higher temperatures, less snowpack, and increased fires are all related to water. Managing our water is paramount to maintaining our quality of life and ensuring a sustainable future.
The biggest challenge is that there’s only so much we can do right now; changes are happening and unfortunately, they’re only going to get worse. Local government can lead but we need the community, the state, the federal government to take significant action as well.
Finally, what do you think are the most promising strategies for addressing these challenges?
It’s honestly behavioral change. When I talked about the landscaping ordinance, we’ve heard people objecting and saying, “but I want my green lawn”. At some point, you have to say, “you can’t have your green lawn, you need to compromise and make some changes”.
We need to change the way we use water and acclimatize to a new cycle. We’re not just adapting to what’s going on now, we need to be ready to continue to be flexible as unanticipated changes will determine our future.