A bright $100 million vision for Minnehaha Creek?

Less erosion, pollution and better recreation opportunities could flow from ambitious new effort

Minnehaha Creek can begin with a single drop of rain falling on the first hole at Wayzata Country Club, a mile or so north of Lake Minnetonka. The raindrop snakes its way down Ferndale Road before being sucked into a storm sewer, where it rushes toward the lake.

From there, the drop is released through Gray's Bay Dam, becoming part of the creek that travels 22 miles through Southwest and other metro locales before flying over Minnehaha Falls and then pouring into the Mississippi River where it hurtles toward New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.

Our modest little creek connects us to the rest of the world, even as it serves as a local wildlife habitat, scenic hiking trail, urban canoe route and a storm sewer, flushing away rainwater our concrete landscape can't absorb.

Now, thanks to the blessings of the federal government, the creek may receive a $100 million windfall in the next 10 years. Some of the money could improve water quality in the Chain of Lakes (which drain into the creek) and prevent streambed erosion that can degrade property values and increase flooding.

Such improvements will be weighed as part of an ambitious effort called Choosing Our Future: Minnehaha Creek 2054.

This likely won't be an empty exercise -- the federal government, through a $3.4 million U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study, recently determined that ecosystem restoration in the 181-square-mile Minnehaha Creek watershed is in the national interest.

The Corps' conclusion means the feds will pick up 65 percent of any project, for which it can find a local partner, said Mike Wyatt, a Minnehaha Creek Watershed District (MCWD) environmental planner who offered the $100 million estimate.

To craft a vision, the MCWD -- charged by the state with balancing the creek's functions -- is creating a 21-member task force, including seven positions for volunteer citizens appointed by the MCWD. Applications are due Thursday, Aug. 12. (For information on how to apply, see sidebar, page 9.)

Those accepted should expect to attend about a dozen two-to-three-hour meetings over eight months on topics including how watersheds work, factors affecting water quality, wetland ecology, urban watershed management and so on.

Wyatt said "there's no hard and fast criteria" for membership.

"We want people who are just more or less actively involved in what's going on in the community and also concerned about water resources in the area. We're not looking for people who are experts in any types of scientific field," he said.

The task force will give locals a chance to decide what they really want the creek to be: the sunlight-dappled hiking trail, the canoeing venue, the home to wildlife or the convenient storm sewer -- or all of the above.

"With the way cities are strapped for cash right now, and budget cutbacks at the state, we're in a real unique position to do things for the environment that nobody else can because they don't have the money," Wyatt said.

City visions

There are no Southwest residents currently on the MCWD. The only Minneapolis representative is Pam Blixt, who can watch the creek rush quietly through her Nokomis East backyard.

Blixt wants to minimize the devastation a heavy rainfall can cause -- not only to creek water quality, but in the violent, eroding rush of water that increases sediment pollution.

"If part of the goal is ecosystem restoration -- which is what the Corps wants to look at -- [we should] start looking at where can we facilitate more infiltration of water so that the water is more gradually absorbed, rather than dumped into the creek after a rainfall," she said.

Wyatt said a common problem in Southwest is stream-bank erosion, abetted by storm sewer pipes shooting runoff directly into the creek at major street crossings such as at France, Penn, Lyndale and Nicollet avenues.

The creek isn't Southwest's only beloved body of water swallowing the street runoff; the Chain of Lakes also gulps the gray sludge. The lakes are all connected, eventually draining into the creek.

Said Wyatt, "Anything that anyone puts down into the storm system is eventually going to the creek. It's all untreated water. There's a lot of people who have this misconception that everything goes into a giant treatment plant before it gets to Lake Calhoun. Well, you're swimming in the water off the street when you're swimming in Lake Calhoun."

That water can contain everything from grass clippings and dead leaves -- both adding algae-causing phosphorus to the creek -- to paper, plastic and metal litter, plus dog poop, lawn fertilizers and everything else you see lying around on our streets.

All too often, that filthy water isn't even introduced to the creek properly: it's fired into the creek perpendicularly, rather than angled so the creek can absorb the new flow easily. The perpendicular force causes destructive eddies near the shores, which erode the banks, eating away private and public lands.

For those who might argue against spending federal and local money on the creek, Wyatt offers words of caution as to what an untreated Minnehaha would quickly become: "Without regulation, you'd see a continual decline in water quality, you'd see algae blooms on the lakes, you'd probably see more swimming advisories…there'd be the potential to get sick.

"You'd see continued erosion of the stream banks, which have an esthetic impact and an impact on property, and potentially flooding. When stream banks erode and sediments build up in the creek, it gets wider and higher, there's the potential for flooding."

Wyatt is hopeful, however. He said that if someone had created a 50-year plan back in 1954, they might well be pleased with how the creek looks today.

"Minneapolis, in general, did a phenomenal job of planning back in the day. From Theodore Wirth's vision of the overall park system to the way that planning and zoning was implemented throughout the city.

"I think they would be pleased to see the way the creek is right now. Generally, from what we're hearing, from all the studies we've done or seen from other individuals, the creek is actually in pretty good shape right now for an urban stream. Where it's at, though, is a point where it could really go either way. It has the potential to be improved, or it has the potential to really go downhill if nobody does anything about it."