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?

Lake Hiawatha response:
After the above article appeared in the Nokomis edition, a neighbor wrote: “At best your article on Lake Hiawatha belongs on the editorial page.  You make accusations about the powers that be wanting the lake to become a swamp, yet no one has ever stated that to be the case.  You claim 20 feet of silt, yet you admitted a few days ago that your winter depth analysis was likely not accurate.  You admit you are not an expert and yet you continue to claim that making the lake deeper will lower the water table under the golf course.  Dredging will do one thing, it will make the lake deeper.  It will not lower the water table.  The deeper ‘bowl’ will just fill up again with water to its existing water level.”
You say my article “belongs on the editorial page.” I believe every page of a newspaper is an editorial page.  Every article is presented from a point of view.  And that point of view always reflects the point of view of the publisher. They will tell you they are “fair and objective,” but they see things only from their perspective.  They defend the status quo, and they think that’s not taking a side.  It’s also taking a side to ignore a problem.  Ignore a problem and it doesn’t exist. The problem with Lake Hiawatha? It doesn’t exist because the big media and the elected officials aren’t talking about it.  I think it’s my responsibility (and my great privilege and pleasure) to provoke a public discussion of the problems with Lake Hiawatha.
I don’t have the answers. I have some theories and some data. I’m not an expert. And I don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire Barr Engineering to look into whether dredging the lake would prevent flooding and lower the water table. Also, as I’ve said a couple of times, the future of Lake Hiawatha—whether it should remain an 18-hole golf course or a nine-hole course or be eliminated altogether, whether it should become a wetland (which I call a swamp) or a fruit forest, is a matter for those younger than myself.  I have my opinions and I will express them, but younger people than me must take on the responsibility for the future of Lake Hiawatha.
You say I  “make accusations about the powers that be wanting the lake to become a swamp, yet no one has ever stated that to be the case.”  The fact that Lake Hiawatha is turning back into a swamp is a direct result of the inaction of the park board and the City of Minneapolis. The lake is becoming a swamp.  They know that the lake is becoming a swamp. They’re not doing anything about the fact that it’s becoming a swamp.  Therefore, they must want it to become a swamp.
You say I “claim 20 feet of silt, yet you admitted a few days ago that your winter depth analysis was likely not accurate.” I have always said the measurements of the depth of Lake Hiawatha were done by an old friend with an ice auger who drilled down through the ice and dropped a knotted line and the results were checked with a depth finder.  These may be crude instruments to measure—but they are the only instruments  that  have measured the lake that have recorded the depth in 85 years.  Why isn’t the park board or the city interested in that data?  At an average depth of only10 feet subtracted from the 30-foot depth after Wirth dredged it in 1929, the remainder means that according to our crude instruments 20 feet of silt has drifted down Minnehaha Creek to settle at the bottom of Lake Hiawatha. That’s our theory based on our data.
You say, “You admit you are not an expert and yet you continue to claim that making the lake deeper will lower the water table under the golf course.  Dredging will do one thing, it will make the lake deeper.  It will not lower the water table. The deeper ‘bowl’ will just fill up again with water to its existing water level.” Minnehaha Creek enters from the southwest corner and exits at the southeast corner of Lake Hiawatha.  You can permanently lower the level of the lake, not by dredging the lake, but by dredging the creek from 28th Avenue to 42nd Avenue. Think of Lake Hiawatha as a teapot with two spouts.  The one spout is where the water comes in, and the other is where it goes out.  If you could lower the exit spout, the lake would go to that level.  If you were to lower the level of the lake by 4 feet by dredging the creek and not the lake, then the lake would return quickly to becoming a swamp.  If you wanted it become a lake again, then you would want to dredge the lake to a depth of 30 feet.


  1. I agree with Joe regarding the water table, however, wouldn’t what Ed is suggesting not raise the land level, which would be tantamount to lowering water table (you know, what Ted Wirth did ~80 years ago)?

    I may not see eye to eye with Ed on a host of topics, but this to me seem to be a no brainer. Lucky those folks over in Kenwood don’t have a swamp that requires occasional dredgi– oh, wait a sec…..

    Dale Just

  2. I have seen essentially this same article multiple times, and as pointed out above, each time the main argument is based on flawed reasoning about the water table. If the new argument is to dredge both the lake and the creek, then state this in the article. The creek is a treasure for the entire neighborhood, restored to its current state over decades. You would suggest digging this up for a 9 hole golf course? Dredging the creek to 42nd Ave is stated as such a simple affair – like mowing the law or something. Considering the elevation drop for the creek over this distance would be cut in half, this is a significant change to the body of water. If the justification for this expense is to reduce flooded basements, then discuss a rationale why dredging would keep basements dry during historic flooding episodes so that this may also be reviewed by readers with relevant expertise. If this is an argument to use a democratic process to determine if tax dollars should be spent after collecting all of the data related to dredging, lets start even earlier and vote if the expense to even study dredging (and the complex effects on wildlife, erosion, etc) is warranted. I would say it is not.

    It seems evident this is really about the golf course. In my opinion the reason there is little interest in the data you propose collecting (aside from an understanding that dredging would be ineffective) is because there isn’t sufficient interest in saving this part of the golf course. I would much rather have a wetland than an extra 9 holes – that I will probably never use. I would vote accordingly. The democratic process is probably working fine, it appears you are in the minority who feel a place with native plants and thriving wildlife rather than turfgrass is a swamp and that paying greens fees to walk on public land is an optimal use.

  3. There is a common misconception that lakes are like bath tubs. Lakes and wetlands are depressional areas that intersect the water table. They are connected to groundwater both below the lake and to the surrounding dry land.

    You cannot apply the analogy of a teapot with spouts because, unlike a teapot or bathtub, there are no real sides and bottom which confine the water in the bowl. As your critical responder correctly pointed out, dredging the lake will not lower the water table. The lake will become deeper, but the water table will be unchanged.

    Look at White Bear Lake, the lake level dropped because the surrounding groundwater was pumped at unsustainable levels, not because someone sucked up the lake water. Please brush up on basic hydrology before applying flawed layman’s logic.

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