By Ed Fincher
The annual job performance evaluation for Pagosa Springs town manager David Mitchem was one of the items on the agenda at last Thursday’s town council meeting, however, since it was conducted under executive session and behind closed doors there was no way to tell if he caught any flak over a mistake he was forced to admit earlier in the meeting.
“We came to you with a proposal to draw water from the San Juan River to irrigate Centennial Park and to populate the customer side of our geothermal heating system,” Mitchem began. “Right now, we buy water from PAWSD (Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District). It doesn’t require potable water, but that’s what we’re using.”
The original idea was to create a simple water diversion system in the river, filter the water, and pump it to the park and the heating system, but then the Division of Water Resources suggested that drilling a well next to the river would provide a more reliable year-round source of water.
Mitchem made the decision to follow the DWR recommendation and submitted an application for a permit. However, “because the word ‘geothermal’ was in the application, they’ve now come back and said, ‘You’ve got to get all of the geothermal well owners, and all the well owners, and all the San Juan River water rights owners within 600 feet to sign off on it.’”
The well permit application, which was prepared by Jeffery Kane of Maynes, Bradford, Shipps and Sheftel, indicated that one of the uses for the well water will be for a “geothermal heating system.” Consequently, the DWR has asked the town to work through the Colorado Energy Office to obtain approval.
This request is based on the misunderstanding that the well applied for will produce geothermal water for the heating system, rather than the heat transfer medium distributing heat generated by geothermal water from an existing permitted well.
“So, that’s where we are today,” Mitchem concluded. “We have to go back and ask all of the well owners. We have heard no objection and I think we will obtain those letters of endorsement, but all of this process has taken time and it is likely that the construction of this project will not take place until next spring.”
“What was wrong with just a sump pump?” council member Darrel Cotton asked. “I’m not sure you’re going to find any water when you start drilling or how far you’re going to have to drill, because if we are talking about bringing water through the gravel deposit I’ve seen gravel pits up north that are thirty feet deep and twenty feet from the river and dry as a bone. Just because you’re next to the river doesn’t mean anything.”
Phil Starks, director of the geothermal utility, said, “We already did a test, and basically it is just an open pit; it’s not a well. It’s just going to be an infiltration gallery that’s right next to the river.”
“And we need to get a permit for that?” Cotton seemed incredulous.
“Yeah,” Stark affirmed. “It was just a test.”
With temperatures dropping, the need to water Centennial Park will soon end, however, it also means the draw on the geothermal heating system will soon begin. No mention was made of how much water will be required for the system or how much additional taxpayer money the town will fork over to PAWSD because of this error.
“The downtown heating district is in desperate need of getting some money put into the distribution system for repairs,” Starks explained in a later interview. “I have found new technologies we can possibly use. I haven’t gotten quotes for the price of it yet, because it is such new technology. It’s like an epoxy lining that you put inside. It’s actually not an epoxy. It’s more pliable, but it is structurally stronger. It would plug up leaks and give new life to the pipe to last another 70 or 100 years.”
In an earlier interview, Mitchem explained, “We’ve got a geothermal utility here that is 30 years old and the infrastructure is aging. That initial infrastructure was funded by the Department of Energy, and we are preparing to go back to the Department of Energy in the next couple of years with a grant application requesting the replacement of that infrastructure with state of the art technology.”
Mitchem stated his belief that, with this upgrade to the new technology, the town would be able to expand its system and bring heat to every building in the downtown area without drawing any more from the existing geothermal well than it does now.