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Prison's use of hot springs leaving others in the lurch

Four groups have gotten into hot water.

Since the Utah State Prison began tapping into Crystal Hot Springs in 2003, the geothermal water table has dropped for other users including Bluffdale Flowers, Hi-Tech Fisheries and Crystal Springs Fisheries, leaving the latter, which doesn't have a well, high and dry.

To top it off, confusion still exists among some of the groups about who owns all the below-ground water rights.

Still, the Utah Energy Office reported that within the area's 70-acre surface that manifests hot springs, there is more than enough water to go around, as long as it is managed well.

Rain and snowfall in the mountains feed the geothermal system as it descends through fractures, which continually break open along the active Wasatch fault, giving the water ample opportunity to circulate to deep levels, said Bob Blackett a senior geologist with the Utah Geological Survey. Eventually, the hot water becomes more buoyant and returns to the surface in alluvial outflow areas — typically near the bases of mountain ranges where there is lower pressure.

Steve Davis, owner of Crystal Springs Fishery, is one of the area's longest current users of geothermal water. His family-owned-and-operated business, has been one of the nation's leading suppliers of tropical fish to pet shop distributors for 30 years.

Hot springs flow into a two-acre lake near his fishery allowing him to raise African cichlids — a variety of freshwater tropical fish — in water that closely mimics their native Lake Malawi's temperature and mineral content. The geothermal water rises from the ground at roughly 180 degrees, but cools to the optimal 80 degrees when it mixes with the water in Crystal Lake.

But the lake's temperature has dropped continually since the prison first began pumping water, Davis said. The estimated 500,000 to 1 million fish can survive at the current 70 degrees, but if the temperature drops any more, the fish likely will all die.

"We're essentially going to be put out of business if the prison keeps pumping out as much water as they are," he said.

Davis said he has been continually drawing down the size of his lake until it has become a small pool in order to conserve the water's heat. The lake is currently down 30 feet.

"Right now my lake looks like the Kennecott copper pit," he said. "It's just a huge chasm in the ground."

Before the prison began extracting the geothermal water for heating purposes, three years ago, the greenhouse was the only big water user, and they didn't use it in the winter, allowing the springs and lakes to fill up in the summer, Blackett said. Now, the prison needs to pump continually to keep the pressure on the system, preventing the springs and lakes from rebounding.

Davis said he would like to drill a well of his own, but he can't because of a below-ground water rights dispute.

And although he owns surface rights to the water flowing from Crystal Lake and the used water from Bluffdale Flowers, he said he hasn't gotten any water from his springs this summer and the greenhouse hasn't began pumping well water yet. He's only been able to keep his fish alive by recirculating the water he already had, and that is detrimental to their health.

Though Davis's springs typically dry up during the winter, they've never gone dry in the spring or summer until now, he said. The fishery survives winters because Bluffdale Flowers discharges its used warm water into the lake.

The flower business, which cuts roughly 5,000 roses a day for flower shops, begins pumping geothermal water to heat its greenhouses when the air temperatures drop below 50 degrees, said Manuel Cantor, Bluffdale Flowers manager. If the air is any cooler than that, the rose buds won't fully open and have to be thrown away.

The greenhouse generally begins using its pump at night during September and sometimes keeps it running through April, depending on the weather. Pipes circulate geothermal water around the greenhouses' parameters giving off heat and geothermal power runs heaters to keep the greenhouses warm during the winter.

The geothermal operation offers the flower business significant savings in natural gas, Cantor said, though he couldn't provide a specific amount the business saves.

"I know a lot of people who were interested to get this place because they know they won't have to pay heating," he said.

Despite a failed attempt to unleash the energy source beneath the prison in the 1980s prison officials have again sought to cut costs using geothermal power in recent years, this time successfully.

The underground energy source saved taxpayers $120,000 in natural gas, last winter after contracting with Johnson Controls, a worldwide energy service company, said Doug Wright, prison facilities coordinator.

Geothermal water currently heats all of the domestic water for cooking, bathing and laundry for 1,700 to 1,800 inmates. Additionally, during the winter, it heats five buildings where offenders are housed and two industrial buildings where they are employed.

"We have more capacity in the well, but the cost to run the water out to the next closest unit is cost prohibitive to what we would save," Wright said.

The project has been phased in over the past year with the last unit being added a month ago. But, Wright said he doesn't anticipate the prison expanding their geothermal operations, especially since officials are currently discussing the feasibility of moving the prison.

"Until the decision is made, we're not inclined to spend a lot of money adding to this program," he said.

Geothermal water is pumped through two separate heat exchangers, which extract the heat out of the "dirty water," Wright said. The process lowers the water's temperature to 154 degrees before it flows to Hi-Tech Fisheries.

An arrangement between the prison and the Utah Department of Transportation allows the water to flow from the fish hatchery into a cooling pond near the Jordan River, meeting the transportation department's mandate to preserve wetlands, Wright said.

Hi-Tech Fisheries is a contract operator for Utah Correction Industries that raises tropical fish similar to those raised by Crystal Springs Fisheries . It is largely state owned operation and labor is provided by prison inmates. The prison runs its well pumps continually, providing the fishery with water year-round.

But, as for Crystal Springs Fisheries, Davis said he is waiting for Bluffdale Flowers to turn on its well pump and hoping his fish will survive in the meantime. He doesn't have the financial resources to fight for more water rights.

"We're at everybody's mercy out here even though this spring was once a naturally flowing thing," Davis said.