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Town geothermal system needs needs prompt attention

Like most of the United States, the town of Pagosa Springs faces a utility infrastructure that is aging and increasingly in need of repair or immediate replacement.

For the average citizen, roads are the most obvious unmet need — the Pagosa Springs Town Council has approved a plan to make major repairs and upgrades to the portion of Lewis Street between First and Fourth Streets — but it is the infrastructure buried beneath the streets that is also facing imminent failure as years of use and disrepair have taken their toll on the system.

Last month, Pagosa Springs Geothermal Supervisor Phil Starks presented a report to council stating that the potential for systemic failure is especially apparent in the town’s geothermal heating system, which experienced a cascade of failures during the past year.

Initial repairs to the system earlier this summer were immediately followed by failures downline (concentrated along the Lewis Street corridor), most likely the result of differential pressure created when the initial repairs were done.

Reporting the work completed over the summer, Starks added that the failures were symptomatic of a system that had exceeded its lifespan and would see increased failures in the near future.

When SUN staff, during a later phone interview, asked Starks if those failures were systemic, Starks replied, “Yeah, essentially.”

According to Starks, “It’s the whole system in general because of the nature of the geothermal water, the age and type of piping used, plus the heat of the water. We are fatiguing the system due to the depressurizing and repressurizing that takes place every year.”

Currently, the town carries most of its water for geothermal heating through asbestos cement (AC) piping, which under normal circumstances has a lifespan of anywhere between 50 and 70 years. While the AC piping in Pagosa Springs has been in the ground for over 30 years, “The way we use our system is causing the breakdowns,” said Starks.

Starks said that breaks occur in the system, “Normally when we repressurize — about one a year,” but added that, with the stress on the aging system, he anticipates that number to increase, similar to what happened this past summer.

Of particular concern for Starks is an eight-foot section of AC pipe running beneath U.S. 160 at Fifth Street, connecting the north and south sides of the system. Asked if the town needs to take a proactive approach to that section, Starks answered, “If we want to be reliable and continue providing our customers service, yeah, hopefully.”

With an estimated cost of over $300,000 to replace the water main beneath U.S. 160, the project would involve coordination with the Colorado Department of Transportation for traffic control as portions of the highway are shut down to handle construction.

However, if the main breaks prior to planned repairs, the cost of construction could be much higher due to the need to mobilize emergency crews while losing many of the benefits of a competitive bidding process. Worse yet, many geothermal heating customers would find themselves without service.

Although the Obama administration has allocated hundreds of billions of dollars for infrastructure projects since early 2009 — with allocations especially designated for renewable energy — the town has been slow to pursue those funds. Despite an additional $50 billion being released by the administration this past summer, with those funds tied directly to infrastructure (with priority given to renewable energy projects), the town has just recently investigated availability of infrastructure stimulus money for its geothermal system (Starks and the town, after several fits and starts, have pursued federal funds for construction of its wastewater treatment plant).

While Starks said that a grant application was being written by Mary Tighe (the Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation’s newly-hired community grant writer), he could not say what kind of priority was being given to the grant application or when it would be submitted.

Due to a family emergency, Tighe was unable to comment for this story.

Like most of the country, the town and county face a situation where decades of disregard and neglect have taken their toll on infrastructure. Last year, the nonpartisan American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States an overall failing grade for 15 areas of infrastructure requirements (aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, public parks and recreation, rail, roads, schools, solid waste, transit, and wastewater), the most troubling being D- grades for drinking water, wastewater and roads, a D grade for schools, dams, hazardous waste and transit. The ASCE estimated that $2.2 trillion would be needed over the next 5 years to bring national infrastructure up to a passing grade in all categories.

In 2008, the ASCE released a report card on infrastructure in Colorado indicating a state in crisis as far as infrastructural needs. The state has faced severe budget cuts since then, and it can be assumed that little has been done to address most of the issues brought out in the report. In fact, state agencies reported that the 2008 state budget was $66 million short for required non-transportation infrastructure projects.

Among the ASCE’s findings for Colorado:

• $5.32 billion will be required to meet Colorado’s drinking water infrastructure needs and an additional $2.13 billion needed for wastewater infrastructure.

• The ASCE rates 32 percent of Colorado’s major roads as either poor or mediocre, while 18 percent of the state’s bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

• Of Colorado’s 1,935 dams, 352 are “high hazard” (a dam whose failure would cause a loss of life and significant property damage), 2 percent of which have no emergency action plan to assign responsibilities for evacuation or notification in the event of dam failure. Of all dams, the ASCE deemed 9 to be “in need of rehabilitation to meet applicable state dam safety standards.”

Unfortunately, local, state and federal governments have taken a mostly reactive approach to infrastructure requirements and embraced a “penny wise, pound foolish” policy on expenditures, i.e. addressing infrastructure only after needs are apparent and immediate, usually to the point where costs far exceed those that would have been incurred had the project been tackled in a timely, more proactive manner.

While infrastructure investment has obvious advantages — better, safer roads, fewer systematic failures or customer outages, etc. — the economic benefits are also evident (see related article Page A1).

According to report released last week by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) funding for infrastructure, with an initial $700 billion price tag, will only cost the U.S. $25 billion by the end of this year.

Furthermore, those funds, according to the same CBO report, have resulted in raising “real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product by between 1.4 percent and 4.1 percent,” lowering “the unemployment rate by between 0.8 percentage points and 2.0 percentage points,” “increased the number of people employed by between 1.4 million and 3.6 million,” while increasing “the number of full-time-equivalent (FTE) jobs by 2.0 million to 5.2 million compared with what would have occurred otherwise.”

Yet, despite tangible benefits of ARRA funding for infrastructure, the town and county have largely ignored the availability of that money. With the exception of the town’s wastewater treatment plant (the application process for funding started earlier this year) and a joint application by the county and the U.S. Forest Service for improvements on Piedra Road, minimal improvements to Stevens Field Airport, no other ARRA funds have been sought (Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem has said the town will seek ARRA money for the completion of the Riverwalk trail system).

The Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District is the only local entity to have successfully secured ARRA funds, receiving over $9.3 million last year for an upgrade to its wastewater system.

In the meantime, it is more a matter of “when” rather than “if” as far as a major failure in the town’s geothermal system.

“Our main concern of the district is delivering the service to our customers,” Starks said, “and making sure there are no interruptions. This is why we need to be proactive and focus on the sustainability of the system.”

For now, that sustainability, and the ability to finance its insured success, is a matter of time as the application for ARRA funding crawls through the government’s arduous approval process. Likewise, it is just a matter of time before that system faces further failure — hopefully not before adequate funding has been secured to prevent another cascade of breakdowns — or the need to tear up U.S. 160.

The ASCE website at www.infrastructurereportcard.org/state-page/colorado was used to source some of the material in this article.

jim@pagosasun.com