Michael A. Mariant  /  AP
A Paso Robles dad and his two children take a look at the pit and hot spring left behind after a quake hit last Dec. 22.
updated 3/9/2004 10:54:59 AM ET 2004-03-09T15:54:59

Affectionately known as “The Hole From Hell,” a stinking, steaming, simmering cauldron wafts a rotten-egg fog through City Hall, across the town park, and past the downtown cafes, antique stores and farm suppliers.

For many citizens in this Central Coast agricultural community, the prolific hot spring that bubbled up in City Hall’s parking lot after a devastating earthquake holds great promise, despite its stomach churning sulfurous odor.

“To me it’s a natural resource and Paso Robles is blessed to have it,” said local geophysicist Floyd Butterfield, smiling proudly on the asphalt lip of the gaping pool.

Butterfield was called to City Hall on Dec. 22, about an hour after a magnitude-6.5 quake rolled through downtown, killing two women, damaging hundreds of buildings in the area and causing up to $200 million in damage.

Amid the wreckage, emergency crews had spotted what they assumed as a busted sewer line — what else could it be with that horrible reek?

But Butterfield’s nose knew better, and the steam rising from the little gusher confirmed it — this was a geothermal spring.

Town had spa history
It wasn’t a complete surprise.

Similar springs dot the Western states, concentrated in areas known as “hot spots” like the area around Paso Robles. The springs are formed when rain or melted snow percolates through layers of porous rock and slips into the fissures of the earth’s crust.

Hundreds of feet below Paso Roble’s City Hall parking lot, cold, sinking water meets a layer of rocks heated by magma. Once superheated, the water rises back up through this natural plumbing system, eventually spouting through the surface as a hot spring.

Paso Robles was founded as resort town in the late 1800s, and for decades downtown was dotted with hot mineral and mud baths. But as their popularity faded, the baths were closed, the springs covered, sealed, and all but forgotten.

That is, forgotten until December’s quake cracked open a deep fissure, allowing 110 degree water to spout from the parking lot at about 350 gallons a minute — enough to fill six Olympic-sized swimming pools a day.

Engineers at first figured a cap on a sealed pipe from a former spa must have busted.

Crews broke through the asphalt and dug through a layer of thick mud. No pipe. They dug through the floor of a former bath house and then its brick foundation. No pipe. Backhoes hauled away load after load of liquefied mud, as the pit consumed an 80-foot wide, 25-foot deep chunk of the parking lot with no end in sight.

“I finally asked them to please stop digging because they were having entirely too much fun,” said City Manager Jim App.

So crews erected a large, chain link fence, installed large, noisy pumps and dug a half-mile trench to pipe the water to the nearby Salinas River.

What to do?
This is not a permanent solution.

For one thing, state regulators and environmentalists warn that the deluge of warm water that leaves a crusty yellow dust of sulfur on the riverbanks could eventually damage the ecosystem. Also, the mayor and City Hall employees need somewhere to park their cars.

And then there’s the odor.

On a recent evening, about 100 residents crowded into a public meeting room to discuss how to rebuild downtown, where 82 buildings cracked or crumbled, and more specifically what to do about the hot spring.

Ideas abounded, some conflicting: develop a spa, heat City Hall, clean and then drink the water, build a warm swimming pool, send it across the street to the Paso Robles Inn. Everyone agreed on one thing (and a moderator illustrated the point drawing a massive nose clamped shut with a clothes pin): Do something about the smell!

City officials are trying.

Their short term plan, which they hope will be complete this month, is to install enough pumps to dry up the excavation and then refill it with dirt, pave it, and start parking cars there again. Once complete, App said the smell should dissipate so they can begin trying to figure out beneficial uses for the water, public or commercial.

To date, the spring has cost about $200,000. Eventually that price tag, covered in part with state or federal emergency funds, could reach $2 million.

Scientific swim
On a recent, brisk morning, Butterfield stripped to his swim trunks and scrambled down the steep bank of the pit to the edge of the hot water. He slipped into the clear, blue-green water. Soon he was wading, and then paddling. There was, he insists, a scientific reason for his exploration.

“I wanted to see what was happening where the bubbles are,” he said. What he found, or actually didn’t find, was a bottom. Later probes with steel pipes hit a mushy, boiling gravel about 20 feet down, but he said there’s probably nothing solid for at least 300 feet.

And the water?

“It felt wonderful,” said Butterfield. “Just right.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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