Plans have materialized for a project east of Gunnison which would utilize the geothermal resource at Waunita Hot Springs Ranch for its heat- and power-generating potential.
An application filed with Gunnison County proposes a 161,000-square-foot geothermally powered, hydroponic greenhouse to grow natural and organic vegetables on property now owned by the Pringle family. The property is under contract to be purchased by Charles Barr of San Francisco, Calif.
His company, Waunita Ranch LLC, intends to purchase the current ranch, which would be leased to Spring Born Inc., another company owned by Barr, for the purpose of building and operating the greenhouse.
The Pringles have operated Waunita Hot Spring Ranch, located north of Tomichi Dome off County Road 887, for the last 57 years. For the vast majority of that tenure, the property was a dude ranch — with the Pringles also selling admittance to the hot springs pool for day use.
But three years ago, the family discontinued operations of the dude ranch — instead opting to host groups and events.
Ryan Pringle, whose parents bought the property and started the business, said it will be up to the new owner whether use of the property by the public will continue.
“I hope to still see some semblance of public use, but that’s to be seen,” he said.
According to the application, Waunita Hot Springs Ranch encompasses approximately 212 acres, eight of which are used for the current guest resort. The greenhouse — itself proposed to occupy the area of nearly three football fields — as well as infrastructure and road access would cover about five acres.
Big boost for production
According to the application, the greenhouse’s planned hydroponic growing systems yield eight times the per-acre production and reduce water use by 75 percent as compared to traditional farming. The geothermal resource would support heating of the greenhouse for year-round growing with minimal expense, the applicants say.
The greenhouse’s produce would be distributed to regional markets on a wholesale basis.
A second greenhouse could be built in the future with no significant increase in infrastructure or energy costs, applicants say.
Under current plans, employee traffic resulting from the greenhouse would consist of about 20 roundtrips per day, based on an estimated need for 20 employees. Currently, during the summer guest season, the ranch requires the same number of employees.
The project currently is being reviewed as a major impact land-use change. However, the applicants have requested the review be reduced to a minor impact — a decision which will be made by Gunnison County Planning Commission.
County Community and Economic Development Director Cathie Pagano said that a date has yet to be set for the application to go before Planning Commission. The application was deemed complete last week, after which referral agencies have 21 days to comment.
Eyeing of resource nothing new
The area around Waunita has long been eyed for a geothermal project of one form or another. Interest in tapping the resource for power generation extends back more than five decades.
The area is identified by the Colorado Geological Survey as one of the two best geothermal locations in Colorado.
About 10 years ago, two large swaths of federal lands near Waunita were nominated for geothermal exploration. However, the potential for a project appeared to fizzle when one of the loudest critics of the proposal — the owner of the nearby Double Heart Ranch — purchased the lease in an apparent attempt to quash a large-scale project from coming to fruition.
Then, in 2015, Jerry Smith — president of a company called Pagosa Verde, which specializes in geothermal development — indicated that he had received permission from the Pringles and another nearby landowner to explore the resource in the area. If the resource was validated, Smith indicated his hopes of leasing the property for “direct use” applications — such as to heat and operate a greenhouse.
Smith has been named the general manager for the proposed Spring Born project.
Yet, opposition by Double Heart Ranch to geothermal development in the area has not waned.
A letter on behalf of Double Heart from Denver attorney Bennett Raley to county leaders dated July 1 opposes the project “due to its unacceptable and substantial impacts to an important and historic ranching area of Gunnison County,” also opposing that the proposal be reclassified as a minor impact.
The letter contends that “the existence of an immense building and the operation of a major industrial and shipping facility will have substantial permanent effects on this area that will be visible for miles.”
A ‘natural progression’
Two years after the Pringles bought Waunita Hot Springs Ranch in 1962, they received the first inquiry about developing a power-generating facility on the property. It wouldn’t be the last.
Timing is everything, according to Ryan Pringle. Not only are renewable-energy advocates continuing to show interest in the area’s potential, but the dude ranch business is not what it used to be.
“It’s the natural progression of the property, of the resource,” Pringle said. “It’s a hot springs. That’s what started the property, and maybe (Barr) is the person with the right vision to pull it off.”
Despite changes that may come, Pringle, his wife Tammy and mother Junelle plan to continue living at their homes on the ranch.
“This is an interesting vision, and it will be extremely beneficial to the county,” Pringle added. “It will be a big deal.”
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)