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Council wants more info before funding geothermal study

Offered a second bite at the apple to take the lead on funding geothermal research, the Pagosa Springs Town Council rejected the opportunity last Tuesday despite support for the plan by Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon, an endorsement for the plan on Monday by the Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation board (see related story) and an almost-unanimous consensus of support among residents in attendance at the meeting.

Council members opposed to allocating CDC funds for the research cited discomfort with a proposed work plan outlining the study.

Council members Jerry Jackson and Kathie Lattin were absent from Tuesday’s meeting.

Authors of the work plan conceded that the document was incomplete, but that it would be revised to suit council’s needs. Furthermore, the authors stated that funding would not be paid up front, but would be incrementally applied.

As reported last week in The SUN, council considered and rejected proposed funding for research that would, if completed, determine the extent of geothermal resources in town and throughout the county.

At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, Aragon asked local businessman and CDC member Morgan Murri how he felt about what had transpired.

“It was a discouraging meeting to me,” Murri answered. “I would ask you people to find a way to ask for what you want so that it’s positive. We’re leaving a positive meeting where nothing has been done.”

“I would ask, as a fellow community member, that you find a way to lead,” Murri added.

Murri’s comments seemed to reflect the frustration of most of the people in attendance who appeared to prefer the council fund a study on geothermal.

Aragon had convened Tuesday’s meeting, he said, “To address concerns regarding how the town is dealing with its geothermal water.”

While council also approved a revised RFP soliciting bids for a proposed geothermal utility (with the goal to rehabilitate and greatly expand the town’s current heating system), discussion on research funding took up the vast majority of council’s time.

Late last year, council approved $50,000 in funding for the CDC, invoiced in quarterly payments. That donation carried no stipulations but, at that time, it was made clear that the town would not provide a permanent line item for CDC funding.

During a March 28 CDC board meeting, Archuleta County commissioner (and CDC board member) Michael Whiting raised the issue of county and town funding for the CDC (jointly exceeding $100,000), suggesting the diversion of a portion of those monies as payment for a geothermal baseline study.

This past February, representatives from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) visited Pagosa Springs and recommended a baseline study of the area’s geothermal resources, “(T)o protect existing thermal water users, pressure temperature and flow-rate measurements should be made on all currently used wells and springs on a bi-weekly or monthly basis.”

To those ends, NREL recommended the installation of meters, “(O)n all functioning thermal wells and springs so as to obtain fresh baseline data.”

The results of that monitoring would precede a test of the extent of the reservoir. That test would involve pumping out water from the Pagosa Springs well No. 3 and dumping that water into the river while checking meters for pressure and water levels. Another proposed test would be to drill to various depths, then reinject the pumped water back into the aquifer.

The latter tests the effect of cooled water on the reservoir while the former tests the effect of drawing additional water from the aquifer on existing users.

If the tests confirm the postulate of underutilized resources, the implications could be great economic news for the area. The report recommended two uses — geothermally heated greenhouses and aquaculture — along with a large-scale expansion of the town’s current geothermal heating system.

However, it was the work plan provided by NREL representatives (issued through Great Divide Investments) that troubled several council members.

“I have a little problem with this proposal by Great Divide because I don’t know what we’re going to get in the end,” said trustee Darrell Cotton. “I think it needs some fine tuning. I don’t have a problem doing the study but I’m not sure this is the study we want to do.”

Trustee Shari Pierce asked Town Manager if the town’s attorney, Bob Cole, had looked at a potential conflict of interest of the NREL team conducting the research. In February, that team had been contracted to consult on drafting the RFP as well as helping to review applications from potential vendors responding to that RFP.

Mitchem responded, “I’ve talked to Bob Cole and he has said ‘no,’ there is no conflict of interest.”

“I can’t see how there isn’t a conflict,” responded Pierce.

With several community members imploring council to agree to reallocating CDC funds for the purpose of funding a study, only Robert Sparks, vice president of engineering for Hardin Geothermal (one of the vendors competing for the town’s geothermal business) stated opposition to funding the study. Hardin warned that, if the town contracted with Great Divide to conduct the research, the town could potentially find itself with long-term commitments to the company, with increasing demands for more data and more money.

However, local business owner Kirsten Skeehan said that Sparks was presenting “a false either/or scenario” and advocated for the study’s funding.

While council was clear that it was not opposed to the research, three out of four members in attendance expressed discomfort with the plan they had in hand. Although Volger made a motion to redirect $15,000 in CDC money to fund the study, that motion failed due to a lack of a second.

Furthermore, council did not appear to harbor any animosity towards Great Divide or NREL. When Mitchem asked council if they felt it appropriate to issue an RFP for the research, trustee Stan Holt responded, “In view of all the work they’ve done for nothing (i.e. not charging the town money) and all the time they’ve put in with that, I don’t have a problem with a sole source (contract). I think they’re 100 percent behind us.”

Nevertheless, it was clear that council was not comfortable with the work plan they had been given and would not approve reallocating CDC funds until a clearer work plan had been delivered.

Despite Tuesday’s lack of a decision on funding a study, the issue is far from over. Town council meets today in a joint session with the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners at 10 a.m. at Town Hall to again discuss funding for the proposed study — the second time both boards have discussed the issue in as many weeks.


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