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Colo. Mines team to conduct geothermal research

In mid-May of 2012, the town of Pagosa Springs will host as many as 70 graduate students and faculty members from the Colorado School of Mines, working to do a geological survey of the area’s geothermal aquifer.

The announcement came last Friday from the town’s geothermal supervisor, Phil Starks, who originally invited the group to visit Pagosa Springs and consider conducting research in the area.

As reported in The SUN two weeks ago, Colorado School of Mines team leaders met with town officials on Oct. 18, along with members of the Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership (GGP), Pagosa Geothermal Advocates (PGA), geothermal stakeholders, the Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation, the Pagosa Springs Chamber of Commerce, the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners and interested local residents. At that meeting, local officials hoped to convince the team that not only was there sufficient reason to conduct research, but that the area would provide the team with more than enough hospitality to provide almost every comfort.

At that meeting, the Mines team said they would need about two weeks to decide if Pagosa Springs was a good fit for them and their research. However, the general consensus of meeting attendees was that group members were pleased with what they’d heard.

Last week, having rendered their decision, the group announced that it would be coming to Pagosa Springs to conduct the research.

That research will involve two projects, one large scale, the other much smaller in scope.

Dr. Terry Young (head of the Geophysics department), Dr. Michael Batzle and Dr. André Revil (both professors of geophysics) described the research their School of Mines team will conduct in Pagosa.

Although faculty and students would be researching numerous characteristics of the aquifer, that research would be the result of the two primary studies: deep seismic profiles made of a portion of the aquifer and passive, “geoelectrical methods” of data collection — “including self-potential, electrical resistivity, and induced polarization” — that Revin describes on his website.

As far as deep seismic profiling, Young said that, “The technique is very similar to medical technology, such as an MRI or a CAT scan.”

What Young meant was that significantly large sound waves are directed beneath the earth’s surface, allowing a computer to translate the received echoes as shapes and depths (much in the way that an MRI — Magnetic Resonance Imaging — provides three dimensional images of a patient).

Those sound waves will be generated through the use of so-called “thumper trucks” — 60,000-pound pieces of equipment that generate controlled seismic energy.

Through both reflection and refraction, seismic surveys of the subterranean topography are achieved as seismic waves, travelling through a medium such as water or layers of rocks, are recorded by receivers, such as geophones or hydrophones.

Revin’s research, on the other hand, measures electrical signals associated with the movement of water in porous, fractured materials to locate the movement and characteristics of geothermal water.

With dozens of graduate students in tow, working with Mines faculty, the team will mobilize in specific areas throughout Pagosa Country, attempting to map portions of the aquifer for the first time ever.

During the Oct. 18 meeting, Gerry Huttrer, president of Geothermal Management, Inc. and lead on research soon to be underway regarding the hydrologic characteristics of the aquifer, stated that the team’s findings would not only supplement the data his team hopes to generate, but added that, “This research would normally come at a great expense and this is a great opportunity to get this done for far less than what you would normally be paying.”

In return for the research, the town and county would be responsible for providing students and faculty with room and board.

To those ends, local officials are hoping that area residents will mobilize with characteristic Pagosa Country hospitality. While finding suitable lodging for the group does not appear to be an issue, feeding the group will require a community effort.

According to Dawn Umpleby, department assistant for the Mines’ Geophysics staff and in charge of logistics for the team, other communities have provided the team with meals through events like potlucks, barbecues or themed dinners.

However, with some students and faculty members adhering to special diets (vegetarian, vegan, kosher, halal, etc.), local residents looking to fete the group would need to accommodate those team members accordingly.

Making those arrangements and helping to host the team should not be a problem in a welcoming town like Pagosa Springs. After all, it is not often enough that Pagosa Country puts out the welcome mat for 70 or so highly-motivated and educated young people (or their professors), especially a group that will provide the area with a much better understanding one of the area’s most valuable resource.

If that resource is, as many have said, the key to economic development in the area, the generosity and hospitality of area residents won’t just benefit several dozen graduate students, researchers and professors. It will, most likely, end up with the success of Pagosans for generations to come.

jim@pagosasun.com

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