Changing Lake Hiawatha into Lake Swampy

Water level at the storm sewer is 5 feet above where it was 50 years ago.BY ED FELIEN

Former Mayor R T Rybak started a lively discussion in South Minneapolis by saying, “Sad to admit this, but until I saw this mural in South Minneapolis I didn’t know that what we now call Lake Hiawatha was once a wetland where wild rice grew. So if this is the case and we see the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board having to spend an awful lot of money pumping water off the golf course next to the lake … is it time to ask whether we should restore the flooded part of the course next to the lake back to the natural wetland? I know a lot of thinking has already gone into this but I would love to be enlightened about whether this is possible and/or a good idea.”
When Theodore Wirth bought the land in 1929 it was indeed a swamp.  He dredged the lake to 30 feet and created the golf course and baseball fields and the park.  After 87 years of silt being carried into the lake from Minnehaha Creek the greatest depth is now just 10 feet.  The water level of the lake is 4 to 5 feet higher than it was 50 years ago.  This means the water table of the park and golf course and the surrounding neighborhood is higher, and that means when there is a big storm, like the one in 2014, the area will flood because water cannot seep into the already saturated ground.
Lake Hiawatha and the surrounding neighborhoods are indeed turning back into a swamp.
And that seems to be what Lake Harriet liberals like Rybak, naturalist experts at the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District (MCWD) and our commissioners on the park board want for South Minneapolis.
The manufactured crisis that is being used to justify the swamping of Lake Hiawatha is that pumps are running constantly to pump ground water from the golf course into the lake.  The naturalist experts at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) say the park board has been pumping seven times more water into the lake than is allowed under their irrigation permit.  Parts of the golf course are 2 feet below the level of the lake. DNR and the MCWD want to turn off the pumps and let the land go back to being a swamp.
Of course it’s not smart to keep pumping ground water from the golf course into the lake only to have it seep back into the ground water so you can pump it back out again.  But there is a simpler and better solution.
Instead of pumping water from the golf course into the lake, we should be pumping the accumulated 20 feet of silt at the bottom of Lake Hiawatha onto the golf course.  Instead of pumping water out of the land, we should be pumping land out of the water.  This would lower the level of the lake and raise the level of the grounds.  That’s junior high school physics.  If we would dredge out the lake then we would lower the level of the lake by 4 to 5 feet and eliminate flooding in the park and the surrounding neighborhood.
I asked Commissioner Steffanie Musich, the commissioner who represents that district, whether the park board has considered dredging the lake.  I received no response.
I asked Michael Schroeder, the new assistant superintendent of Planning Services and the person in charge of changes at Lake Hiawatha, whether they are considering dredging the lake.  He said, “To date, the investigations have focused on pumping of storm water and ground water, and not on investigations within Lake Hiawatha. Our consultants have not suggested dredging as a way of resolving concerns related to storm water and ground water pumping from the golf course, and consequently, the MPRB has not asked for bids for dredging. During discussions with other agencies, the focus is developing a full understanding of the pumping of storm water and ground water from the golf course; no agency has suggested that the MPRB direct attention to dredging of Lake Hiawatha.”
Perhaps the people of South Minneapolis want a swamp instead of a lake and a golf course.  Perhaps we won’t mind if our basements continue to get flooded because of the high water table, but shouldn’t our elected officials at least give us a vote in the matter?  Shouldn’t they at least consider the cost and value of dredging the lake?
The park board got almost a million dollars from FEMA to repair Hiawatha Golf Course after the 2014 flood.  What have they done with that money?  Spent it on studies that don’t solve the problem of flooding by dredging, but instead justify turning off the pumps and recreating the swamp because it seems so natural?


  1. I’ve read a few of your articles on this subject. I have many issues with your “simple” solutions but I will focus on one:

    The sediment in Lake Hiawatha is very likely contaminated and would legally have to be treated as a hazardous waste. That means all of the dredged sediment could not be displaced onto the golf course as you suggest, but instead would have to be taken to a hazardous waste landfill. The significant added cost of dealing with the contaminated material is likely why no one is considering dredging as a solution.

    Dredging would also be a short-term solution. The lake will continue to accumulate sediment so long as it receives stormwater and Minnehaha creek flows through it.

  2. We encouraged “Blooming Boulevards” and it sounded great. Bright, pretty, well tended flower beds were intended. The program resulted in some of that, but also beds of very tall weeds blocking the access from streets to sidewalks. Many of them have all manner of junk such as ladders, half barrels, benches that I’ve never seen anyone sit on, rusty bicycles and large and small rocks and bricks and green treated lumber mixed in. The small sidewalks across the boulevards are usually blocked by the untended plants. It seems that we forgot that gardens planted by people on the property we all hold in common should be well regulated.

    Then we brought forth “Rain Gardens” in our yards. In the parks we dug swamps and planted cattails and allowed large areas of other park lands to become overgrown with weeds. Again, filtering water before it drains into lakes and rivers and saving money by not mowing grass and eliminating chemical herbicides that keep the grass weed free sounds great, but unmaintained public park land quickly becomes unusable.

    Swamps and tall grasses are breeding grounds not only for “good” flora and fauna, but for bad ones such as mosquitoes (Zika virus) and ticks (Lyme disease, POW and HA) and rodents, rabbits, and hares (Tularemia). Any attempt to control these diseases are more difficult than simply not providing the habitat needed for their spread. Our forbearers drained the swamps in order to reduce pestilence and make the ground more useful for people.
    We may all want to remember that we need not have every facet of wilderness represented in every acre of public land in order to preserve nature – there is plenty of unmodified land outside of our cities, a great many swamps and prairies. The old ones that made this the City of Lakes thought that a modified and tame version of the natural world would serve the people of our cities best. Wilderness is for truly wild lands, cities are for people and tame lands. I urge avoiding the temptation to make every lake and all park land conform with an idealized notion of its restored natural state.

    I for one shall tell my representatives to dredge all the lakes in Minneapolis back to the depth they were first dredged to and get the boulevards and park lands back under control. Spend what is needed to maintain them and don’t buy any more land. And I’ll urge them to do so while avoiding unhealthy practices – you don’t have to filter water with rain gardens and swamps that we haven’t polluted with chemicals. I think a long moratorium on changing the character and use of common lands should be called for.

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