GREEN RIVER, Emery County — One of Utah's most unusual tourist attractions is dying.
The so-called "soda-pop geyser" near Green River seems to have been plugged up by visitors who are too eager to see an eruption.
"In the last two years it's gone to zilch," said Jo Anne Chandler, archivist at the nearby John Wesley Powell River History Museum.
The on-again, off-again phenomenon is officially named Crystal Geyser. City leaders five miles away in Green River have often dreamed about turning it into a major tourist destination. But they may have missed their chance.
A rare type of geyser that operates on cold water, it's pretty much a fizzle these days.
Experts believe it's been plugged up by rocks dropped into the geyser's blowhole by tourists hoping to trigger an eruption. "They're not aware that they're taking away a lot of our young people's heritage," Chandler said.
A typical eruption these days is just a bit of fizzing at the mouth of the geyser, sometimes with a water column rising just a few feet high. The tiny eruptions are notably feeble compared to impressive eruptions of the past that used to soar high above the desert.
"Better than Yellowstone!" Chandler said of those good old days. "It would go up and stay!"
They used to have eruptions up to 100 feet. It's gotten where most of the eruptions are less than 20 feet. Most of them I would say between 3 and 8 feet.
–Rick Lyons, University of Utah geo- engineering student
Geo-engineering student Rick Lyons agrees. He's a University of Utah geo-engineering student who's writing his thesis on Crystal Geyser.
"They used to have eruptions up to 100 feet," Lyons said. "It's gotten where most of the eruptions are less than 20 feet. Most of them I would say between 3 and 8 feet."
Although Crystal Geyser looks like a spectacular work of nature — it has dazzling terraces of colorful travertine deposited by gushing water — it was actually created by a man-made accident. Eighty years ago, an oil-drilling project went awry. Instead of oil, the drill rig hit a deep deposit of carbon dioxide.
The fizzing commenced.
"It's exactly the same as opening a bottle of coke, or anything that has carbonation in it," Lyons said. "Same exact process."
Big eruptions have been well-documented over the years. Color film footage of a spectacular eruption was shot by French kayakers traveling down the nearby Green River in 1938. Chandler has assembled a collection of many photographs of eruptions 80 to 100 feet high during the decades when it became a well-known destination for people who lived in the area.
"There'd be 15 or 20 kids here and everybody running underneath the geyser just having a blast," Chandler said.
There are many theories about what caused the recent decline in the geyser's performance: years of drought, a nearby drilling project, even attempted sabotage by a rival geyser owner who allegedly tried to destroy Crystal Geyser with dynamite.
Scientists, though, believe the most likely villain is tourism. Visitors get tired of waiting for an eruption and drop rocks down the old drilling pipe.
"Every time I've been there," Lyons said, "I've talked to people who say, 'Oh, we can get this to trigger. All we have to do is throw some rocks down into the well.'"
Scientists have been studying the geyser for decades, sometimes lowering instruments down its throat. As recently as 2010, they were able to lower the instruments 52 feet down into the hole. But now they hit an obstruction 19 feet down.
The rocks dropped by visitors have plugged it up, just like someone putting the cap back on the soda-pop bottle.
Geyser lovers like Chandler believe someone ought to spend money to re-drill the hole and unshackle the geyser's true potential.
The dying geyser is still of considerable interest to scientists. On a recent day, University of Utah biologist William Brazelton was there to take water samples from the huge terraces of minerals deposited by the geyser.
"This formation is just beautiful, intricate," he said.
Brazelton's studies involve the ecological interactions of microbes.
"We know nothing about how that works," he said. "This might be a weird spot to look for that sort of thing. But weird environments can help you understand how those basic processes work."