DRIGGS, Idaho (KIFI/KIDK) - Teton Valley, made up of the towns of Driggs, Victor and Tetonia, Idaho, and Alta, Wyoming, is a world-class destination for outdoor recreation including skiing, mountain biking, fishing and hiking.
What Teton Valley doesn’t have is a community pool. Parents who want to teach their kids to swim must either pay extra money for access to private pools or drive to neighboring communities. The same goes for swim teams, recreational swimmers and people who might benefit from aquatic therapy.
In 2013, Driggs adopted a countywide recreation master plan that listed an indoor recreation center as the top priority for the community due to a large need for mental and physical wellness resources. The city recognized the need for children to have a place to go after school, physical therapy resources, and a place for community members to socialize while maintaining their health.
The city then worked with USA Swimming’s Build a Pool workshop to understand how to bring a community aquatic center to Teton Valley. Local geologists pointed organizers to a decades-old study laying out the potential for a geothermal heat source.
Rob Podgorney, geothermal program program manager with the INL has created a model for a geothermal well that can hopefully harness the power from the Yellowstone hotspot and snowmelt from the Tetons to create an aquatic center for the Valley. According to his projections, this source will be sustainable and shows no decline within the next 10 years.
Teton Valley Aquatics is a nonprofit organization formed to design, build and operate an aquatics facility for the community. They’ve been working on this project with the city of Driggs for roughly 5 years. Through an initial engineering, design, and financial feasibility study completed in December, 2019, the project was split into 3 phases.
“We would start with outdoor pools,” Bob Self, Community Development Director for the City of Driggs said. “If we have the geothermal option, then those outdoor pools would be year round to begin with. Phase 2 would be enclosing the lap pool and therapy pool. Phase 3 would be adding indoor sports uses like a recreation gymnasium.”
The total cost was estimated between $7-$17 million. The team estimated they would lose roughly $200,000 to $600,000 per year in operation costs.
The city of Driggs received funding through a technical assistance grant outreach program offered through the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) to provide seed money for the project.
“We’ve been pursuing the geothermal option to this because it potentially can give us green power and turn our negative operating deficit into a positive cash flow, which will be much easier on the budgets of the city and the county and basically all of the people of Teton Valley,” Richard Weinbrandt, retired petroleum engineer and board member of Teton Valley Aquatics Foundation said.
Weinbrandt has worked on geothermal projects all over the world. He says the snowmelt from the Tetons carries 4,000 “feet of head” which produces pressure behind its fresh water runoff that can be used to heat the building, parking lot, sidewalks, and community pools of the Teton Valley aquatic facility.
“The artesanal nature of the water that comes out will actually drive electrical generation equipment,” Self said. “So we’ll actually be able to sell electrical power back to Fall River Electric...we’re reducing our carbon footprint in that regard.”
“It’s a green power source,” Weinbrandt said. “It prevents burning any hydrocarbons to run the systems. And it provides an amenity for the Valley.”
There will be two different types of systems. The conventional indoor lap pool will be indirectly heated by the geothermal water without contact to the chlorinated pool water. The geothermal water will be used in lieu of a natural gas heater to warm the pool water.
The geothermal source offers the potential for outdoor hot springs liken to Lava Hot Springs that will have hot water flowing through and changing over every half hour to hour. Weinhardt says there will be a continual change in the hot, fresh water that will keep the temperature between 95 and 105 degrees like a hot tub.
“There are a lot of other models out there like Astoria Hot Springs, Lava Hot Springs, and all across the west in Colorado and Montana where these kinds of facilities exist,” Self said. “We’re not inventing anything too new, but I think marrying that kind of facility with a municipal indoor lap pool and Rec Center like this might be a little bit new.”
“Our location in Teton Valley is what’s the unique part of it,” Weinbrandt said. “We’ve got a lot of recreation tourism, we border the Parks, we have Grand Targhee up the road, and just a lot of background uniqueness to Teton Valley and we can hopefully enhance that.”
Weinbrandt says Teton Valley Aquatics hopes to serve the entire populace of Teton Valley to include learn-to-swim programs for children, competitive swimming programs, and senior aquatic exercise activities. He says throughout the winter, the indoor track will offer a safe opportunity to stay active without the dangers of slipping on ice. There will be a child pool and zero entry pool to meet the needs of the learn-to-swim lessons.
“We’ll also have a significant user group from the tourists who come to Targhee to ski and come in the summer to mountain bike,” Weinbrandt said. “So we expect quite a bit of tourism funding essentially by buying admissions to the facility.”
Teton Valley Aquatics is ready to move to drill a well on the site to test Podgorney’s theories.
“If it comes in as expected, we’ve got a geothermal resource,” Weinbrandt said.
The site-specific concept design plans and fundraising efforts must be still completed and construction is planned to begin in 2023 or 2024. Building contractors have shown an interest in the project and the city needs to close on the land donation next to the 5th Street Skate Park.
“We have a design that is kind of floating, it could land anywhere and we do have a site now and we’re working with the property owner who is going to be donating five acres to the city,” Self said.
“Think about the site that we’ve got right now,” Weinhardt said. "It has a view of the Tetons, it’s right on Teton Creek. Large trees, sitting out in a hot tub in a snowstorm, looking up at the Grand holds a lot of interest for a lot of people.”
Weinhardt says there is a $500,000 budget for the well and fundraising efforts for that are underway.
“It’ll be a very short drilling project, a matter of two weeks, once we get everything cleared up and we can access it,” Weinhardt said.
Weinhardt says building a well can be risky and there will only be private donations funding the project. Investors will receive a tax benefit from their donations.
“I would hope it serves as a model for win-win community solutions,” Self said. “We have a large chunk of the community that sees an indoor rec center and pool as their top priority. And another portion of our population doesn’t want their taxes to be raised for anything like that. We’re looking to develop a solution that would be revenue positive for the community. And if it all works out, it’s definitely going to be a good model.”
After the water flows through the aquatic center, Weinbrandt says the remaining heat will be sent to the Driggs sewage plant to assist in a biodegradation process that will help digesting bugs grow through the winter. He says the water will then be sent to the Tributary golf resort ponds, which will provide them with an alternative water source than to take water from Teton Creek.
Weinbrandt says this will keep water in the Creek for much longer every year, building a groundwater resource in Teton Valley.
“It will keep the Creek flowing longer, rather than drying up in the summer as it does when irrigation demands are high,” Weinhardt said. “Basically, it will also improve the ecosystem, wildlife, and vegetation. Everything will respond to the extra water.”
Self says by using this alternative water source, Tributary golf resort can return some of their irrigation water to Teton Creek and thereby improve fish habitats. He says the city of Driggs is also looking to use geothermal heat to support greenhouses and an agricultural education facility.
You can find more information on the INL's geothermal analysis for the community pool project here.