Geothermal greenhouse moves ahead

To paraphrase an apocryphal anecdote, reports of a geothermal greenhouse’s demise are premature.

The project, conceived several years ago by a handful of local citizens and championed by Pagosa Springs mayor Ross Aragon, appeared to be a nonstarter as late as December 2008, after The Archuleta Economic Development Association was denied a $40,000 grant for funding a feasibility study. Frustrated by AEDA’s failure but unwilling to allow the project to flounder, Aragon approached several people from amongst the areas best and brightest to reconsider the viability of a geothermal greenhouse.

The committee met in mid-December to, in the words of committee member Sheila Berger, “Go from something conceptual to something on the ground.”

Other members of the mayor’s committee include Rick Bellis, Michael Whiting and Kathy Keyes. Former Pagosa Springs interim town manager Tamra Allen agreed to serve as the committee’s chairperson, joining the committee this past Monday.

Although Bellis is the planning director for Archuleta County, Berger is special projects manager for PAWSD and Whiting is executive director of the Southwest Land Alliance (SLA), all committee members emphasized that their work on the geothermal greenhouse in no way reflected representation of their respective organizations. In fact, Aragon stressed that the committee and it’s members were to “keep it as non-political as we possibly can.”

The committee met in the mayor’s office this past Monday and presented their work to incoming county commissioners Clifford Lucero and John Ranson, as well as sitting commissioner Bob Moomaw.

“This, to me, is exciting,” Ranson said, “This can show the community that we can pull together and get something done.”

In order to get something done, the committee has called on numerous local, state, and federal agencies for both funding and technical assistance, while reaching out to the community for material and civil support.

For instance, the choice location for a geothermal greenhouse would be on property currently owned by BootJack Management, adjacent to and south of the courthouse. Whiting contacted David Brown, BJM owner, about the prospect of leasing the property for the project.

According to Whiting, “I got the impression that David was very interested,” although details of a deal have not been entirely ironed out.

“The advantage of the BootJack property is it’s visibility,” Whiting said, “Just off U.S. 160, and pretty much zero cost for geothermal delivery. Since the area is flat, there would be a minimum of dirt work involved.”

Should negotiations for leasing the BJM property fall through — optimally, the property would be leased to the county or the town for temporary use as a pilot project —the project’s committee has scoped a portion of Centennial Park as a contingent location.

The downside of the Centennial Park location is that it would not have the kind of visibility offered by the BJM property and a certain amount of work would be required to plane the location. The obvious upside is that the town owns the parcel along with the location’s immediate access to geothermal wells.

In fact, Aragon hopes to have a resolution before the Pagosa Springs Town Council for today’s mid-month meeting (noon, in chambers at Town Hall), not only designating the portion of Centennial Park for the project but also allocating 100 Gallons Per Minute (GPM) of town geothermal water for the project.

Although a council resolution reserving town land for the project would not appear to be controversial, the second part of the resolution, reserving 100 GPM of town geothermal water for the project, could prove to be a sticking point. During much of 2008, town geothermal water was the subject of discussion and debate as The Springs Resort pursued both a lease and absolute rights to 400 GPM out of 450 GPM of the town’s available water. Reserving 100 GPM for the greenhouse would decrease available geothermal water to 350 GPM, essentially scotching any previous deals proposed by The Springs Resort.

County geothermal rights likewise figure into the developing picture of a geothermal greenhouse.

According to Moomaw, when BJM sought to purchase the County Courthouse in 2007, county geothermal rights were a point of contention in the deal. When Allen indicated that the county possesses a number of geothermal rights that are not being used, Berger pointed out that, “In 1990, the county lost half of their geothermal rights because they could not prove due diligence or beneficial use,” and that “Current use (by the county) is not being documented.”

According to Pete Kasper, lead water commissioner in Pagosa Springs for the Division of Water Resources, the county did, “give up about half of those rights,” but that the county could refile on those rights should a need for the water arise.

Moomaw reiterated that, “I’m concerned with (county) geothermal rights in selling the courthouse somewhere down the road.”

Whether or not the county could provide geothermal water for the greenhouse does not appear to impact the project, however, as several local agencies appear poised to contribute significantly to the project. Berger said she believed PAWSD would be interested in supporting the project, a contention supported when the PAWSD board unanimously passed a resolution of support at its meeting on Tuesday.

Whiting said that the SLA would consider serving as the fiscal agent for the project at its Jan. 22 board meeting.

Although positioned as a grassroots community effort, the committee has not shied away from state or federal funding opportunities. Berger said that grants applying for stimulus package money made available by the Obama administration were “ready to go” as the project meets criteria for those funds, both in jobs creation and in emphasizing green energy.

As conceived, the project would use not only geothermal energy but also solar energy. Furthermore, an idea was floated for the use of river water in powering a turbine for the project. Should La Plata Electric Association become involved, wind energy could be a further adjunct for powering the project, making the greenhouse an example of comprehensive uses for alternative energy resources.

The committee hopes to meet later this month to check progress (the town council resolution, the BJM response regarding the location, SLA willingness to serve as financial agent, etc.) and continue making the dream a reality. Although the committee hopes to unveil the project’s “soft launch” at this year’s Mountain Chili Cha-Cha in September, significant progress could push the launch up as soon as early summer.

“We need something to stimulate the economy,” said Bellis, regarding the project, “And this is something we can do right now.”

With the spirit of cooperation apparent at the meeting, the committee could easily meet or exceed its goals. Certainly, the committee is not without talent, an observation made by Aragon when he said, “The brain trust that we have, you couldn’t ask for anything better.”

Lucero reflected the mayor’s enthusiasm, saying, “It’s so exciting just to see this, young people working on this assisted by Ross’s wisdom. It’s neat.”

jim@pagosasun.com