After several months of soul-searching and weighing alternatives, we’ve come to the difficult decision that Morton’s Warm Springs, our public-facing service business, will remain closed for 2020. We expect to reopen for the public next spring in May of 2021. Because of our very brief season (the county limits access for the general public to just three short months with two 'shoulder' months of weekends & holidays), opening the Springs this year would mean that we’d do so at a significant financial loss while facing substantial risks to the health, safety and wellbeing of all involved.
The choice to remain closed came into focus only in the last few weeks as we considered the many sacrifices that opening would mean. For one, limiting attendance to create safe social distance would mean spending the same fixed operational costs but without having enough daily visitors to recoup those costs, let alone make income. Limiting visitors would also mean that our beloved organic Cafe 108° would remain shuttered -a big loss for staff, members and guests alike. Additionally, many of the groups, schools and families we traditionally welcome have already had to shift plans away from field trips, reunions and other social gatherings this year. So, it’s clear that we’d be fighting an uphill battle in any attempt to adhere to 'business as usual' in times that are anything but.
Another major consideration is our commitment to safeguarding the health, safety and wellbeing of all who share belonging here, including the natural world around us. If we followed the heightened COVID-19 safety and sanitization protocols recommended it would mean introducing a vast new quantity of single-use waste and sterilizing chemicals into our local ecology. As we attempt to keep humans safe, all those downstream from us would end up further harmed by the unintended consequences of our actions -something that goes against one of our most deeply held values here at the Springs of responsible ecological stewardship.
Also, during this time of great social change, we can’t speak of safeguarding diverse and alive ecosystems that matter without affirming our stance of solidarity with Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other people of color who are disproportionately being impacted by COVID-19 and by the oppressive systemic forces embedded in our society, which many of us daily partake in through 'business as usual.' Clearly, this is a time to deeply examine and reimagine the courses we have been set on, and to take bold action to see a just and equitable world.
Part of what that looks like for us here at the Springs is prioritizing building and deepening in healing relationship with people of color, especially local Latinx and Indigenous leadership whose communities carry such critical wisdom, culture and beauty but also the traumatic past of these lands. Another part of what this looks like is exploring how we can create better access to the medicine of these healing waters, especially for those whose inclusion has been systemically limited, and those on the front lines of movements for justice. We are forever students to learning what’s ours to do in dismantling systems of oppression, transforming systemic racism and healing the legacy of colonialism in our lineages and culture. We will continue to ask for permission for the journey and humbly invite participation from the original stewards of these lands -the Wappo, Southern Pomo and Coast Miwok- as we rededicate our hearts to a caring and engaged inquiry into the deepest layers of both place and self. In our understanding of stewarding land, we see that only by remembering and integrating the full story of all that is woven here may we begin to understand anything about the true nature and purpose of these Springs and her future.
So while for this year our choice to remain closed to the public may be clear, we want you to know that it's not something we take lightly. It's a really big deal, especially in such challenging times when a dose of sunshine, connection in nature, and a dip in the medicine of hot springs goes a long way for many of us. This may also be, in fact, a historic first that the wider community isn’t able to come and access the healing resources that are here. As an organization we have this added challenge of working within a county constraint which currently dictates our seasonal operations at the Springs. This makes the economics precarious in a normal year, let alone during a pandemic, as we must make all our income in just a few very intense months while trying to stay affordable for all. So please know that this decision to remain closed would be very different if we didn't have this additional constraint limiting our ability to get creative with other offerings to our members and guests, as even small changes might first require an update to this use limitation, likely an expensive, lengthy and possibly political process as well. No quick pandemic pivots there!
If you’re wondering, the county constraint we have is what’s called a 'legal nonconforming use determination.’ It came into being back in the year 2000 when several neighbors petitioned the county to enact some then-needed protection against an extremely ornery owner who, from the sounds of it, had some fairly horrible people skills and no concern for impacts on the beautiful little rural community surrounding the Springs. Because of this brief and very unfortunate chapter of truly terrible leadership (remind you of anything else we're currently living through?), here we find ourselves today; for almost nine months of every year this land and its magical, magma-heated waters are inaccessible. And while perhaps an update is long overdue it's not likely to happen until there is enough groundswell of support from both neighbors and community alike to move through a use change process with the county.
It’s time now to remember what this place truly is, what it might want to be. It’s time to look at how these Springs can better serve our greater community's resilience, health and wellbeing -especially with the continued social and environmental disruptions that are sure to keep coming. We firmly believe that all people everywhere need ready access to nature, to healing springs, and to beautiful and affordable outdoor places to gather, connect and simply be. This place offers that and more. It’s unique. It's a place of natural communion; where we get to be fully immersed in nature, with each other and with community. There's just nothing like it, not even for forty or fifty miles around! These Springs are the last geothermal source in the entirety of Sonoma County, and the entire Northern Bay Area region, that remain accessible and affordable to all.
While these waters will remain closed for 2020, we expect to resume with our next season in the spring of 2021 with our usual May opening. Meanwhile, we'll be in a repair phase along with a reassessment of what’s ours to do in this historic moment and vast sea change being called forth. Luckily, we were able to secure an Economic Injury Disaster Loan that will cover almost 70% of our fixed costs and get us by for the time being. Even though this loan is for just the bare bones, like keeping the lights on and paying property taxes, we recognize that it’s a profound privilege many do not have right now, and we’re incredibly grateful for this critical support that is allowing us to be here and to turn our attention to different priorities while we’re closed. For example, our core steward community has been busy tending the wildlands for fire safety, repairing and updating critical infrastructure, expanding our organic food production garden, securing affordable housing for local staff, and doing a deeper dive into our anti-racism and indigenous allyship work. One other wonderful thing that its helping us to focus on right now, and that we’re very excited to share more about soon, is our nonprofit initiative Restore The Springs, which, in collaboration with several other local agencies is in the planning stages of a significant grant-funded creek ecology restoration project here at the Springs.
One day we hope that you, along with all those who love hot springs, will join with us and our neighbors in support of these Springs more fully being able to give her gifts. There are so many ways forward where we can preserve and even further protect all that has been working so much better here in recent years -namely, the natural sanctuary environment we each treasure. But the time is not quite ripe yet. For now, we need to get through this year, bridge our income shortfall, and focus on building up the foundations needed for the longer arc ahead.
These are times of extraordinary upheavals and transformation, where countless old systems are shifting and splintering as new possibilities emerge. Our prayer is that we all step forward in mutual support and true care for each other so that we may all pull through together and emerge stronger into something new. Thank you for being with us.
The Aletheia Stewards