Geothermal domes nurture plants and learning in Pagosa Springs

Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017 9:19 PM
The Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership plans to build two more domes this spring along the San Juan River in Pagosa Springs. One will be a community garden and the other will be a demonstration space for aquaponics.
Miles and Maddie Baker distribute ladybugs with Colorado Master Gardener Pauline Benetti inside a greenhouse at the Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership in Pagosa Springs.
Gardeners with 4-H are growing in Geothermal Greenhouse Partners Education Dome for the second year. From left, Marie Smith, Miles Baker, Kaila Limebrook, Kynslie Limebrook and Maddie Baker placed ladybugs for pest management.

After about a year of gardening in a dome on the banks of the San Juan River in Pagosa Springs, the Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership plans to start construction on two more domes this spring.

Residents began planning the growing spaces in 2008 and 2009 during the Great Recession as a way to revitalize the town’s historic downtown. The vision was to provide an educational and growing space for all ages and demonstrate geothermal energy, said Sally High, the president of the nonprofit’s board of directors.

“We are all about the intersection of energy and food security and water,” she said.

The first dome was completed in Centennial Park during November 2016 along the town’s river trail and serves as a hands-on teaching space for public, charter and home-school students, as well as the 4-H garden project. It has also garnered attention from tourists and hosted workshops for adults.

“We wanted our first dome to be wide open to the public, and we wanted to reach all ages,” High said.

Fifth-grade science teacher Chris Couch has taught lessons in the dome and been impressed with the ability of the geothermal system to speed up growth and increase the variety of species that can be planted in the mountain town.

“You could grow bananas there if you wanted to. It’s pretty incredible,” he said.

In addition to drawing in the public, it has also produced a bountiful harvest with thousands of tomatoes, leafy greens and other vegetables. The dome, 42 feet in diameter, produced enough bounty to sell at the farmers market in its first year, she said.

In the next phase of construction, the nonprofit plans a dome to house a community garden and an innovation dome, which will be used to demonstrate aquaponics – a hydroponic system that incorporates fish to help feed the plants, High said.

Construction of the new domes this spring will be funded by a $174,500 grant from the Colorado Water Plan Engagement and Innovation Fund and a $34,000 matching grant from the Colorado Garden Foundation.

When complete, the final cost of the project could be between $800,000 and $1 million, High said.

The nonprofit has been run by five committees and has about 100 members. This coming year, the nonprofit plans to hire its first employee, an administrative manager.

The domes are built on leased property from the town and have access to 100 gallons of geothermal water per minute from the town’s system, which is also used to heat downtown businesses.

Direct use of geothermal energy keeps all the greenhouses at an ideal temperature for growing. Part of the goal of the project is to demonstrate the vastly under-recognized energy source, High said.

Dozens of Colorado towns have hot springs where the geothermal project could be replicated, she said.

The nonprofit also focuses on the wise use of water domestically and agriculturally, and volunteers are planning several workshops in 2018 focused on water conservation, including rain water collection.

In addition to the domes, the nonprofit built an amphitheater along the river to host educational events as well as performances.