Seeing the creek clearly

Minnehaha Creek task force delivers recommendations for better water flow, more aquatic life and less erosion

About a year ago, a group of citizens began to focus their energies on creating a vision of what Minnehaha Creek could be in the future. Would it be a wildlife habitat? A scenic hiking trail and urban canoe route? Would our modest creek be used as a storm sewer flushing rainwater and pollutants into the Mississippi River? Would it be an aquatic home to the beautiful (and tasty) freshwater fish found in teeming rivers?

The simple answers are yes, yes, yes and no. And, as usual, the devil is in the details.

The nine-member group, Citizens of the Watershed, is part of the larger, 23-member Minnehaha Creek Visioning Partnership that is crafting a vision to help determine how the 22-mile creek will be used for the next half century.

Priorities

The Partnership is a collaboration of the five cities surrounding the creek (Minneapolis, Edina, St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Minnetonka), the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board, Hennepin County, the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District (MCWD) and the Army Corps of Engineers.

The citizens group includes Southwest's Judy Bridell, an active bird watcher and retired paralegal who is currently writing a children's book on schoolteacher Eloise Butler (of Eloise Butler Wildlife Garden and Bird Sanctuary fame).

The Armatage resident said her year's work with the group was well spent.

"This is government at its best," Bridell said. "[The Partnership] is a unit of government that is close to the citizens, it asks for citizens to speak up and express their opinions - and they were listening."

The citizens group made recommendations on creek flow rates (which influence recreation activities, stream bank erosion, flooding and habitat), area supervision around the creek, and possible dam and sediment removal.

The group decided that its highest priorities were, in order, to stem stream bank erosion, improve aquatic life and improve stream flow.

The group's recommendations to combat stream bank erosion - a problem throughout Southwest - were fairly broad-brush: use bank stabilization technologies incorporating vegetation over retaining walls and other artificial stabilization techniques.

To improve aquatic life, the group recommended that homeowners plant native plant species, discourage invasive species (including buckthorn and yellow iris) and improve wildlife habitat by establishing a more natural buffer around the creek.

The group also recommended considering that dams and weirs from approximately Minnetonka (near I-494) to Minnehaha Falls be removed to improve stream flow. Structures include Edina's Browndale Dam and 54th Street Weir and Minneapolis' Hiawatha Weir.

Said Bridell, "We didn't make any specific recommendations about a given dam, but what we did was develop a list of criteria for any decision," she said. "For example, we said that if a dam is going to be removed, it would have to be for a general public purpose. And the money spent should be commensurate with the benefit received."

Bridell said that she and others in the group were concerned about sediment build-up behind dams and weirs.

"The issue becomes should the sediment be removed, and if it should be, who should pay for having that done," she said.

Mike Wyatt, MCWD environmental planner, said it's very unlikely that the Browndale Dam would be removed. He said the historic significance of the 140-year-old flourmill dam would make it all but impossible to tear down, even if doing so would improve the creek's ecosystem.

Wyatt said that dredging of sediment from behind a dam or weir could be expected to cost "tens of thousands of dollars."

Selling the vision

Wyatt is going around to the five city councils involved, as well as the Hennepin County Board and the Park Board, urging them all to accept the Minnehaha Creek Visioning Partnership recommendations.

If all the governmental bodies adopt the proposed vision statement -perhaps by October - MCWD will use it as they and the Army Corps of Engineers explore restoring the creek's ecosystem with projects partly funded with federal dollars. (MCWD approved the vision Aug. 4.)

Wyatt said that a year ago, the Corps and MCWD wondered if aquatic ecosystem restoration was even possible in the Minneapolis section of Minnehaha Creek.

"You can treat the stream in different ways. If you want to manage it as an ecosystem, the approach you're going to take with your projects and programs is going to be much different than if you manage it as strictly a recreation resource," he said. "That initial question has been answered: yes, aquatic ecosystem restoration is something the citizens are interested in. Now, we have a blueprint for laying out an implementation plan. Now, what that implementation plan is going to look like is hard to say."

He said implementation depends on funding available.

But at least now, with Judy Bridell's vision forged with her peers, the Corps and MCWD have eyes with which they can see the creek, and the desires of the citizens who surround it, clearly.