Imagine being in a high dry desert and having an unlimited* warm water supply, so pure it requires no treatment, flows steadily all year, and supplies all the heat and electricity needed for numerous homes and buildings. A San Luis Valley fairy tale as wild as rumors of lost treasures of gold?
I have always considered water resources in two parameters; quality and quantity. But a tour of the Valley View Hot Springs, in the northeastern end of the San Luis Valley, added two more. Temperature and elevation. The area is a perfect mountainside oasis, a wet and wonderful treasure, and one more testament to Mother Nature's genius.
QUANTITY - Spring water spews gently out of the ground from five sources at about 9,000’ in elevation. The water remains on the surface and with help from humans, channels its way strategically down the mountain side in pipes, surface streams, and pools. This supplies the water for the kitchens, restrooms, human consumption, and the 11 soaking pools. Waste water goes to an on-site treatment plant. Because water is constantly flowing through the pools they are self-cleaning (occasionally they are professionally cleaned). The leftover clean pool waters are collected, channeled, and sent scurrying down the mountain via a pipe to a micro hydro-electric generating plant. After spinning the turbine for electricity the water is used for growing hay, watering cattle, and supporting endangered species of fish in a pond on the Everson Ranch.
QUALITY - Rain and snow start out fairly pure and as this water percolates slowly into the ground, it is filtered through numerous rock layers leaving only calcium carbonates dissolved in the water. Valley View Hot Springs is one of only a few places in Colorado where the water requires NO treatment to remove any contaminants, heavy metals, or viral/bacterial components harmful to any types of plants or animals, including humans.
TEMPERATURE - Without a steaming volcano around, how the heck does this water get hot? The San Luis Valley has several areas of geothermal activity that heat water to high temps: Valley View - Joyful Journey Hot Springs, the Great Sand Dunes Pool, and the Colorado Gator Farm. Valley View's water is warmed naturally from 94-103° Fahrenheit for the natural soaking pools, and is also used for the radiant floor heating in buildings. However, Valley View has an ace in the hole! Electricity is easily transmitted back up the hill from the micro hydro plant and can heat water in the Apple Tree Pools to hot tub temperatures of 101-108°. And hotter yet for the sauna, showers and for washing dishes. Perfect, or what?!
ELEVATION - Water weighs a ton! Actually, at 8.6 pounds-per-gallon (1 kilo/liter), collected in quantity and sent rushing down a pipe, the pressure can be converted into electricity. One of Newton's laws of motion - "Force = Mass x Acceleration." The system can send 750 gallons of water on a 9,000’ (1.7 miles) journey down a pipe in a vertical drop of 540’. The micro hydro plant is capable of generating up to 55 Kilowatts of electricity - enough to run all the power and lighting needs of the homes and cabins on site in addition to the extra water heating!
On a beautiful early Spring day, I toured the grounds with Doug Bishop, the Executive Director of the Orient Land Trust. We checked out the soaking pools, cabins, outdoor gathering areas, and checked out the 75-mile valley views across to the San Juan Mountains. He explained how it all works to create a wonderful place for humans and wildlife to live, relax, and enjoy what Mother Nature has provided starting with the bounty of warm, wonderful water. Water is the star of the show here! Doug needed to go back to the office but suggested I take the 1/4 mile steep hike up to the highest pools. It was strenuous, muddy, slushy, icy, but an all-around great hike through the junipers and pinon pines. I arrived at the top pool and a couple in their mid-thirties were enjoying a soak on that bright sunny day. They knew of many of the hot springs all over Colorado and all the ones up through Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. I asked if I could share their pool with them for a few minutes. He said, "Wouldn't expect you to work that hard to come up here and not have a soak!" I shed my clothes, and slid into the water which was so close to my skin temperature that it almost felt like nothing at all except perfect. Ahhhhh! Clothing optional is part of Valley View Hot Springs.
*Note: I used the word unlimited here because it has proven to be so. The springs rely on snow melt and rain for recharging the ground water. Flow can vary seasonally. It is not known how the predicted long-term drought will eventually effect these and many other life giving springs in the West.
Orient Land Trust - www.olt.org includes the Valley View Hot Springs, the Everson Ranch and the Orient Mine which is home to 250,000 bats in the summertime. Tours are available every night at dusk.