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Minneapolis lakes legacy: When a mayor, citizens and interagency cooperation delivered cleaner water

With funding cobbled together, Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton worked with multiple agencies to clean up several Minneapolis lakes.

The MCWD water district received a prestigious national award for the Calhoun water project.
REUTERS/Eric Miller

Last week, Mound Mayor Mark Hanus and state Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, went on the offensive to blame the Met Council for the disastrous recent overflow of raw sewage into Lake Minnetonka and three other lakes. The Met Council fired back, stating that its sanitary sewage systems worked normally during the record weekend rainfall and were not the cause of the overflow. While this is sorted out, it might be instructive to look back at how we once worked together to clean up our landmark city lakes.

With a historic wet spring like this one, a walk around the lagoon at Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis used to bring pungent sewer smells and wet shoes trying to hopscotch flooded trails. The lake was inundated with a stew of lawn fertilizer, motor oil and yard waste. In 1998 The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board called it “one of the three worst lakes in the City.”

At the same time, the Park Board was monitoring Nokomis water-quality levels using an industry barometer called TSI (Tropic State Index), which gauges water transparency and levels of phosphorus and chlorophylla. A score of 59 indicates water suitable for swimming, while a level of 75 means pea soup. Several Nokomis readings in the “pea soup” range in the ’90s were the warning signals that galvanized neighbors and politicians. Moreover, Park Board surveys displayed increasing resident dissatisfaction over soupy water quality, algae blooms and smelly city lakeshores.

Minnehaha Creek Watershed District

It was time for decisive leadership and action. Then-Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and the City Council, the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District (MCWD) and the Park Board weighed distinct courses of action, ranging from modest to ground-breaking.

On the one hand, they could pursue additional street sweeping and neighborhood awareness to reduce leaves and waste into the sewers. On the other hand, government could think big and pursue multiagency cooperation, large capital outlays such as extensive stormwater retention ponds, ordinance changes and community involvement.

In contrast to today’s government gridlock in Washington, the blame game over Lake Minnetonka sewage and Hatfield-McCoy politics over Southwest LRT, the late ’90s proved to be golden times of surprising government and citizen cooperation.

Lake Calhoun and Cedar Lake Model

The green shoots of innovation grew from a 1991 study commissioned by the Pollution Control Agency’s Clean Water Partnership program. The report hit for the fences and recommended a major Calhoun and Cedar Lake project of three new stormwater drainage ponds, excavating 60,000 cubic yards of lakeshore and building an extensive underground network of grit chambers and drainage pipes. The ponds would work like three saucers with water quality improving, dirt and sediment being removed as stormwater flowed from one saucer to the next.

Aesthetically, the $8 million dollar project aimed to dramatically upgrade the southwest corner of Lake Calhoun with a new pedestrian bridge, decks, stone retaining walls and beautiful aquatic plants. A 38-member citizen action committee was formed to guide the project.

Working together, Sayles-Belton, Council Member Steve Minn, the City of St. Louis Park, the Park Board and the Clean Water Partnership adopted the project and made significant investments to move it along. Funding was cobbled together from property taxes and grants.

When the Calhoun project was completed in 1999, Pam Blixt head of the watershed district, summed up the ribbon-cutting, we are “celebrating government and actually working together!”

Efforts move to Lake Nokomis

Building on the success of the Calhoun and Cedar Lake project, residents of Lake Nokomis, Standish, Ericsson and Hale/Page neighborhoods stepped forward to advocate for cleaning up Lake Nokomis and Lake Hiawatha. With support of Sayles Belton, neighbors tapped into funds from the grassroots Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) and formed a task force called the Blue Water Commission, focused on a singular mission to improve water quality.

Again the mayor, City Council, Park Board and MCWD helped lead political interference to fund amajor project totaling more than $2 million. The Nokomis effort would also build three water detention ponds with two grit chambers to trap and filter storm water flowing in from more than 800 acres of watershed. A small dam structure would be built to stop runoff from Minnehaha Creek. In all, the three ponds would increase total wetlands surrounding Nokomis by more than 2 acres. Residents were very excited about the project and even provided historic names for the three ponds. The spirit of cooperation sped the project from study to completion in only three years.

Then and now: steady improvements in water quality

Today, I make a special point to jog the Nokomis lagoon loop and appreciate the beauty of the ponds and cornucopia of exotic flowers. I take in a rainbow of colors from the plants: cardinal flower, yellow coneflower, meadow blazing star, goldenrod, sky blue aster and black-eyed Susan.

The recent Minnehaha Creek Watershed District annual report card on city lakes quality visually displays the rewards of these cooperative projects.

Lake Nokomis registered one of its best water quality scores since 1993. Its ponds are trapping an estimated 2,700 pounds of polluting phosphorus per year. The Southwest Lake Calhoun ponds have prevented 180,000 pounds of phosphorus from entering the lake while an additional 15 tons of sediment and waste have been trapped and removed. As a result, the MCWD water district received a prestigious national award for the Calhoun water project.

Minnehaha Creek Watershed District


With the current backdrop of a blame game over who’s responsible for the recent Lake Minnetonka sewage dumping and bitter partisan politics staining the Southwest LRT project, I think it is time to look back and learn from an era of involved neighbors, cities working with cities and collegial government agencies — creating landmark projects with results. One thing my trek past the Nokomis ponds has shown me is that the sky is the limit when we work together.

Retired after 31 years in marketing for United and Northwest Airlines, Tony Randgaard has been published by MinnPost, Air Cargo News, The Forward, CNS Air Cargo Focus, and the Rake.