EDITORIAL: A Respectful Goodbye to ‘Pagosa Waters,’ Part One

A couple of videos for our Daily Post readers this morning.

The first video dates back to May 2014, when local businessman Jerry Smith, founding partner of Pagosa Verde, stepped up to the podium to celebrate Archuleta County’s exciting future as one of the nation’s foremost producers of “geothermal electricity.” About 75 people had gathered in and around a big white tent in Pagosa Springs’ Centennial Park, to applaud Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper as he publicly apply his signature to HB14-1222.

A handful of video crews were present to document the ceremony, and we had a chance to hear briefly from some elected officials — then-State Representative Mike MacLachlan, County Commissioner Clifford Lucero, Pagosa Mayor Don Volger — and of course, the Governor himself. Gov. Hickenlooper referenced his own experiences as a young man, opening the first brewpub in Colorado; he also predicted that a impending ‘geothermal electricity generation project’ would soon “brand Pagosa as a place where things are done differently, a place of innovation, and where it’s an outdoor, sustainable quality of life.” (With obvious emphasis on the word “sustainable.”)

Here’s the five-minute video I shot at that 2014 event.

None of the speakers explained to us exactly what the new Colorado law would accomplish, or exactly how it would encourage private investment in geothermal energy projects, but I had a chance to speak with Jerry Smith a couple of days later, and got an overview of how funding might unfold for a proposed $16 million electric generation plant based on Pagosa’s geothermal resource.

One of the primary problems with development of new geothermal industries in Pagosa Springs — whether they be greenhouses, or electric generating plants — concerns the existing water rights owned by local spas. The town currently has three private businesses that charge admission to use the “healing waters” — or that allow free soaking for motel customers.

The geothermal water is considered a public resource — owned by the people of Colorado — but these three businesses have been granted legal right to use the hot water in their baths before “returning it” to the San Juan River. Additionally, the Town of Pagosa Springs owns two wells that are (theoretically) dedicated to a municipal heating utility developed in the 1980s. The heating system serves about 30 downtown businesses, homes and schools — and also supplies water to the Springs Resort for its private soaking pools, under a “geothermal lease.”

Any further development of the public geothermal resource would need to respect these existing uses — which is why it has been crucial to determine the extent and volume of the underground resource before committing to, for example, a $16 million electric generating project.

According to Jerry Smith, the state of Colorado had approved a law, a decade earlier, that was supposed to open up funding opportunities for the development of renewable energy projects — wind, solar, geothermal — by allowing the state and federal government to underwrite bonds for private renewable energy companies. HB14-1222 was pushed through the legislature during 2014 by Representative MacLachlan and Senators Ellen Roberts and Gail Schwartz; it amended that earlier law to make the funding process more attractive to bond purchasers.

Back in January 2014 — while HB14-1222 was being guided through the Colorado legislature — the Town of Pagosa Springs and Archuleta County had created a joint “Pagosa Area Geothermal Water and Power Authority” (PAGWAPA) to help fund the creation of a new electric generating plant… somewhere in Archuleta County. PAGWAPA then became a partner in a ‘public-private’ limited liability company called ‘Pagosa Waters LLC.’

As I understand the technical process (from bits and pieces of information picked up at various public meetings,) electricity is typically generated by heating water into steam, using coal or natural gas as the heat source; the violently expanding steam is then used to drive turbines, which in turn create an AC current.

If the water comes into the plant at, say, 50 degrees, its temperature must be increased by about 160 degrees in order to create steam. But if the water comes into the plant at, say, 140 degrees, then much less coal or natural gas is required to reach the boiling point. Theoretically, then, a geothermal water source can make an electric generating plant — even a small-scale one — profitable to operate.

Presumably, Mr. Smith was celebrating the signing of HB14-1222 because he believed Pagosa Waters LLC and its drilling contractors would, within a few short months, be tapping into a large, newly discovered geothermal aquifer — thanks to a multi-million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and $520,000 in investments from the Town and County governments. (Excess money we didn’t need to repair our streets and roads, I guess.) Once this wonderful geothermal resource was located, investments from private investors would come pouring into Archuleta County, thanks to HB14-1222.

The second video dates back to November 1962. Former Vice President Richard Nixon had just lost another important election… this time in the California Governor’s race against Democrat Pat Brown, who had been endorsed by President John F. Kennedy. As we can see in this 2-minute video about his press conference, Richard Nixon was feeling embittered about the way he’d been treated by the media during the race, and he told the gathered press corps:

“But as I leave you, I want you to know…” (Here, he issues an acerbic chuckle…) “Just think how much you’ll be missing. You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore. Because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference. And I hope what I have said today will at least make television, radio, the press, recognize that they have a right and a responsibility, if they are against a candidate, to give him the shaft…”

I’m thinking this morning about Richard Nixon’s sullen attitude, because — conceivably — Pagosa Verde founder Jerry Smith could very well have delivered a similarly sour speech at yesterday’s PAGWAPA meeting, when the Town and County representatives voted to dissolve ‘Pagosa Waters LLC’ — the partnership they’d cobbled together in 2014 expressly to drill for geothermal water, and then construct an electric generating plant.

But Mr. Smith chose not to deliver a bitter speech, even though he may have felt he’d been kicked around a bit. Instead, he handled the inevitable news like a trouper… and treated the gathered participants with respectful courtesy.

Read Part Two…

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Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.