- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 9, 2004

PASO ROBLES (AP) — 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 residents in this central coastal 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.

Mr. 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 ruptured sewer line — what else could it be with that horrible reek?

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

Similar springs dot the Western states, concentrated in areas known as “hot spots,” such as 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 Robles’ 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.

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.

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 eventually could damage the ecosystem.

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