National park tells of renewed interest in thermal waters
HOT SPRINGS — Both redevelopment proposals submitted last year for the Majestic Hotel site featured the city’s namesake thermal waters.
The $110 million wellness and water-centric destination resort proposed for 100 Park Ave. was the only submission deemed responsive to the two requests for proposals the city issued last year. A thermal pool complex proposed by a Colorado firm didn’t pass muster.
The city has moved on from both concepts and removed “celebrate the natural wonder of our thermal water” from its guiding values for the redevelopment of the 5 acres it acquired in 2015.
While last year’s solicitations failed to generate momentum on the forlorn site that’s sat idle since 2006, they did spark renewed interest in the availability of the natural resource that flows from the southwestern slope of Hot Springs Mountain.
“I received one call from somebody who was trying to gather some very preliminary information,” Hot Springs National Park Superintendent Laura Miller, referring to a call she fielded from a developer looking to build on the Majestic site, said. “They wanted to know how much water is available and what the price would be.
“Both answers were we really don’t know. That started us thinking about what are some of the issues and concerns and things we need to think about to really contemplate a proposal like that.”
The National Park Service estimates the springs produce about 650,000 to 700,000 gallons a day, Miller said, but how much is used and how much flows into Hot Springs Creek is unknown.
“That seems like it would be a really straightforward question, but it isn’t,” she said. “We don’t measure the amount coming out of the cascades on Arlington Lawn. We don’t meter or measure what people take home at the fountains. That’s what we’re hoping to study, to get a better understanding of the amount of flow, how much is used, by whom and in what ways so we can better determine how much is, in essence, excess.”
ROLE IN ECOSYSTEM
The park service’s Water Resources Division in Colorado Springs, Colo., is working to answer those questions, Miller said, and determine the extent of the thermal water’s importance to Hot Springs Creek. The creek is the outfall for overflow from the 270,000-gallon underground reservoir at the south end of Bathhouse Row.
Miller said while some view the overflow as water that could be put to better use, it plays an important role in the creek’s ecosystem.
“I have heard people say ‘that’s just wasted, because it’s not collected or used in some other way,’” she said. “‘If it flows into the creek, it’s just wasted water.’ We have a lovely greenway park along Hot Springs Creek. It is helping to support an ecosystem there. To what extent it contributes to the creek flow, I’m not sure. That’s also one thing we’re going to have scientists from our Water Resources Division study and work with us on to try and determine that.”
Miller said the Majestic Hotel was connected to the park’s thermal water distribution system, making it one of the few properties with a connection outside the park’s boundaries.
“It’s my understanding that they were using the thermal water in their spa, and that we did supply thermal water to the hotel,” she said. “After it burned, the supply lines were removed. That property no longer has the connection.”
The bathhouses access thermal water through historic leases with the National Park Service or concessions contracts, Miller said. Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa, which used to be in the park, has had access since the 1800s. Levi Hospital has had access for decades, she said, and uses the water for therapeutic purposes.
“There really is no process for anyone else to use it right now,” Miller said. “We supply the thermal water to the bath houses. The businesses are operating under a lease or concession contract that gives them access to the water. We don’t really have a process for an outside entity to apply for a permit to access the thermal water at this point.”
‘PRESERVE AND PROTECT’
Legislation that created Hot Springs National Park limits use of the water to drinking and bathing, a mandate that sets the park’s thermal waters apart from hot water that flows in other parts of the country.
“What I hear from a lot of people is ‘I was in Colorado, and I was able to soak in the springs,’” Miller said. “This area was set aside in 1832 as Hot Springs Reservation to protect the springs and thermal waters for bathing and drinking.
“I think what makes Hot Springs different is we’re required to preserve and protect the water for drinking purposes. That’s very different from any other spring system you might encounter in Colorado or other areas in the West. When we are required to provide water for drinking purposes, we have to protect its quality.”