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At left, Bryan Kerby of Northwoods Homes sits with Greg and Jeanne Mehlhop, whose Garfield Lake residence has touched off a battle over geothermal heating systems. The county voted to regulate them and draft new rules to follow at Tuesday’s county board meeting. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

County will revamp geothermal rule

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County will revamp geothermal rule
Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

BY Sarah smith

Section 513 of the Hubbard County Shoreland Management Ordinance is not going down without a fight.

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In fact, it is arising from the ashes. The county decided to propose regulations governing the installation of geothermal heating systems on lake homes instead of deregulating them.

Hubbard County’s Planning Commission voted to send the 1999 ordinance to an early grave last month when commissioners decided they didn’t know what exactly they were regulating.

The green technology, which burns no fossil fuels, either comes as a closed loop system requiring massive excavation or an open loop system that drains directly into the lake. Neither is receiving an environmental endorsement from lake activists or the DNR.

At a public hearing Tuesday, opponents and proponents agreed on little except that the technology is causing a fear of the unknown. But both sides agreed that was not reason to wipe Section 513 off the books.

“To remove this section of the ordinance is absolutely going the wrong direction,” said Board of Adjustment member Ken Grob, also a longtime member of the Coalition of Lake Associations.

“The Board of Adjustment needs a framework,” he suggested, asking the county board not to delete that framework.

Unintended torchbearers

The debate over geothermal systems began in April when Greg and Jeanne Mehlhop’s geothermal heating system came before the BOA.

A pipe was leaking on the open loop system, running into Lake Garfield. A neighbor reported the issue and the couple came before the board.

When the BOA denied their permit, a political skirmish began about the ordinance.

“Here we thought we’d quietly retire to Hubbard County,” Jeanne Mehlhop said Tuesday, shaking her head. The couple and their contractors, Northwoods Log Homes and Ike’s Heating & Cooling, have made the rounds of various county boards the last three months, touting the technology and trying to get a favorable outcome for the Mehlhops.

It was subsequently learned that there may be many more geothermal systems on county lakes, unknown to the Environmental Services Office. Most of the public and contractors weren’t even aware they needed a special permit for the expensive technology and some, like the Mehlhops, thought they were doing the environmentally sound thing by installing a geothermal system.

Water is pulled from a well, runs through a heat exchanger and dumped back onto the ground, where it can seep underground or into a lake.

It is that water (energy) exchange that is most problematic to county and state officials.

COLA involvement

COLA members asked to have the issue tabled until more scientific information becomes available to regulate the systems.

Proponents insist the water going back into a lake is clean, uncontaminated water, albeit a different temperature. But that temperature difference is problematic as well. Board member Kathy Grell questioned what the difference is between drawing water from a well and watering your lawn or discharging a geothermal system on the same lawn.

COLA member Chuck Diessner suggested that since the county hired Environmental Services Officer Eric Buitenwerf as the expert in such matters, it should defer to his expertise to devise a way of regulating the systems.

That viewpoint eventually won out. But a thorough discussion of whether the systems caused unnecessary erosion, whether the water temperature difference and oxygen level of the discharged water was bad for aquatic life, and whether the systems also emitted harmful nutrients or killed nutrients already in lake water then took place.

“We can’t solve and answer all the questions on this day,” Diessner said at the public hearing that was scheduled for 15 minutes but took two hours to complete.

DNR hydrologist Darrin Hoverson expressed concern about the amount of groundwater appropriated to run such systems and questioned the cumulative effect of numerous users on the environment and habitat.

“We have seen a number of complaints about open loop systems,” Hoverson said. If 100 such systems were to be built on a single lake, “the problems would be amplified.”

The state regulates systems that use in excess of 5 million gallons of water a year.

“We don’t want to lose ground on water quality,” said Don Sells of the Hubbard County Water Conservation District.

Regulation

“This is things gone amok,” said Bryan Kerby of Northwoods Log Homes, who has been leading the charge to get the system permitted in Hubbard County. He said he’s never had a problem installing the homes with the heat systems in any other county but Hubbard.

“This ordinance stands in stark opposition to every county and the state,” he said. “The real problem isn’t the science behind it,” Kerby said.

“The state is best qualified to deal with it. The state allows it,” Kerby said in frustration.

He suggested if the DNR wants to police water appropriation by geothermal systems, it should be directing similar attention to irrigation systems.

Doug Kingsley, DNR Fisheries supervisor, said the DNR is charged with the responsibility of regulating the appropriation of water.

He said he doesn’t want to see geothermal systems adversely affect the environment “due to the absence of rules.”

Kingsley said the DNR is already concerned about lake water temperature changes occurring naturally.

“This just adds to the concerns,” he said of the geothermal systems.

“What we’re doing is minute in comparison to irrigation,” said Justin Isaacson, owner of Ike’s. “The lakes are my concern, too. It’s controlled and regulated. It’s not just an open flow into the lakes.” Isaacson said regulation out of fear is unwise.

“Show me the proof” the systems are harmful to the environment, he challenged.

But Hoverson said, “We don’t want to catch up with the regulation” in the event the systems cause pollution.

Buitenwerf was given 60 days to come up with a workable set of rules to regulate both systems. The public will be given a 30-day comment period.

The board approved that plan of action 4-1, with board chair Cal Johannsen dissenting.

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Sarah Smith
Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.
(218) 732-3364
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