One broken water heater: $827,000

An $827,000 geothermal heating system at the French River Hatchery near Duluth has been broken and inoperable since shortly after it was installed more than a year ago.

French River Hatchery
Fred Tureson, manager of the French River Hatchery near Duluth, holds a filter used in a heat-pump system that malfunctioned soon after being installed more than a year ago. The system cost the state $827,000. [Steve Kuchera /]

An $827,000 geothermal heating system at the French River Hatchery near Duluth has been broken and inoperable since shortly after it was installed more than a year ago.

The system worked for nine days after going online in November 2008, hatchery officials said. Then it failed. In the 14 months since then, no modifications have been made to the system, and state officials don't know how to solve the problem.

Any solution could be expensive, said hatchery manager Fred Tureson of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, perhaps several hundred thousand dollars.

Just who would pay for those changes is not clear.

You can see the problem with a look at the system's filters, coated with tiny bits of organic matter.


"The problem," Tureson said, tapping a filter, "in my opinion, is the design."

DNR officials say they're working with the engineering consultants who recommended the system. But nobody has been to Duluth to work on the problem in more than a year.

DNR officials have met with the engineering consultants, Ulteig Engineers, based in Fargo, N.D., but they have maintained they are not responsible for the problem, Tureson said.

Ulteig communications manager Fred Hudson declined to discuss specifics of the issue.

"What we can say is we're working with the state on a resolution," Hudson said.

Meanwhile, Tureson and Peter Paulson, a DNR architectural supervisor in St. Paul, will travel to Hibbing today to consult with an independent engineering group, Tureson said.


Warming Lake Superior's water so it can be used at the hatchery always has been a costly proposition. Water comes out of the lake at 33 to 39 degrees during the winter and must be warmed into the low to high 40s so that trout can be raised there.


Water is warmed at the hatchery in huge boilers heated by fuel oil or wood pellets. A feasibility study in 2002 determined that a geothermal heat-pump system could reduce energy costs significantly.

"Initially, it was supposed to pay for itself in 11.8 years," Tureson said.

That projection was made based on full production at the hatchery, long before the DNR began thinking about shifting some rainbow trout production to another state hatchery where the water isn't as cold. The agency decided just last month to do that, in part to save money on energy costs.

The DNR paid for the heat-pump system with bonding money approved by the Legislature, said Linda Erickson-Eastwood, fisheries program manager for the DNR in St. Paul. Fisheries license dollars and Minnesota Trout and Salmon Stamp revenues were not used to pay for the project.

Sediment situation

The problem seems to be sediment in the water.

"They didn't take into account there was light sediment or silt in the water -- fish waste or maybe some food waste that doesn't break down," said Roy Johannes, DNR aquaculture and commercial fish health consultant.

But that should not have come as a surprise, according to Tureson.


"From day one, we explained to everyone involved that where they were going to collect the water and extract the heat, that's going to be the dirtiest water in the system," he said.

The problem, Tureson said, is that at the point where water is collected for heat extraction, it carries its peak load of sediment. Somehow, the heat from the water must be extracted before that point, Tureson believes. But that would require significant changes.

The DNR has consulted with the Minnesota attorney general's office about pursuing a lawsuit over the stalled project, Tureson said. But no legal action is planned at this time.

"We're trying to work through it in other ways," said Scott Pengilly, an information officer with the DNR in St. Paul.

Meanwhile, the heat-pump system sits idle. The water at French River Hatchery is heated as it has been in the past, by wood pellets or fuel oil, whichever is most economical.

Tureson said the failure of the heat-pump system and the shift of rainbow trout production to the Spire Valley Hatchery near Remer, Minn., were unrelated.

"The heat-pump failure had nothing to do with shifting some of the [Kamloops] production to Spire Valley," Tureson said.

That shift is projected to save the DNR about $75,000 a year in hatchery costs. In addition, upcoming retirements at the hatchery are expected to bring total savings to about $200,000 a year, Johannes said.

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