Rising water levels mean rising frustration


As the Twin Cities faces its wettest year ever, as lakes in the City of Lakes are overflowing and Minnehaha Creek sends more and more water—50 to 80 million gallons—through the city, rising water tables are starting to cause significant problems for many living in the area.
On a late summer evening in mid-September, about 60 residents living in South Minneapolis came together in the basement of the First Free Church, located a block from Minnehaha Creek, to hear a presentation by University of Minnesota professor of bioengineering Joe Mager, about a new study designed to determine what is happening and possibly, what can be done.
According to Mager, the Upper Midwest is more affected by a changing climate than most places. Minneapolis, he said, is one of the top three cities at risk in the country.
The meeting was arranged by Joan Soholt, who has been organizing her neighbors around the issue for several years.
Possible problems in the future include rising water tables, damaged bridges, shifting foundations in buildings, mold and health problems, she said. “Of immediate concern for residents are the problems which are the responsibility of homeowners. Repair costs can range from $5,000 to $60,000.”
Recent heavy rains are a particular concern. According to the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District’s webpage, just one heavy rain event during the week of Sept. 9 caused Lake Minnetonka’s water level to increase nearly 4 inches, to an elevation of 929.47 feet above sea level. The ordinary high-water level is 929.40. Once the level gets higher than 930 feet, the district can no longer control the creek, with problems increasing as the water moves downstream.
The Minnehaha Creek Watershed District includes Minnehaha Creek, which flows from Lake Minnetonka to the Mississippi River.
The University’s three- to four-year study will be looking into frequency and locations of flooding, Mager said, in order to get a better understanding of how increased precipitation is affecting Minneapolis and how it will affect the city in the future.
“In the end, the study should give a better understanding of the situation, including defining groundwater level changes and to quantify geologic and hydrologic features and constraints,” he said. Knowing this, local governments can begin to plan for future infrastructure management and policies to guide strategies for urban water management.
Many of those attending said that they couldn’t wait another four years to hear of possible solutions. A number of homeowners are already living with the effects of rising water, with flooding basements, broken sewer pipes, dying trees, sinkholes, flooded streets and other disruptions.
It’s not just homeowners who are seeing problems. Charlie Olson, the property manager at Hope Lutheran Church on Cedar Ave., said that the church had to install a pumping system four years ago when their elevator shaft began to flood. The church is located a little more than a block from Lake Nokomis.
“We had 16 inches of water in the elevator shaft. We have a water table at 13 feet. and the shaft goes down 15 feet. So, $20,000 later, we’re pumping three to four times a week, pumping out hundreds of gallons of water,” he said. “Big buildings like ours are hurt by the rising water levels. [Nearby] Edgewater Boulevard. is becoming Edgewater Marsh.”
Many of the residents came to express anger at plans by the Park Board and the City of Minneapolis that they say will simply make the problems worse.
Bobby Warfield attended the meeting to express his concerns about the Park Board’s controversial idea to allow the Hiawatha Golf Course to flood and to stop pumping water from the course into the lake.
“What you are seeing here is the canary in the coal mine,” he said. “This is beyond wrong. Their premise is that the golf course is lower than the lake so we might as well flood it.”
Warfield thinks that the four-year study through the University might not be needed. “This study is trying to take $40,000 to send to this group and it’s not going to give us any more information. They are only going to confirm what we know. It would be better and cheaper for the US Geological Survey to study the problem.”
With heavy rains, there is also the risk of storm sewers washing into sanitary sewers, causing contamination of lakes and rivers.
“If the water table raises any higher, my block will have problems,” said Diamond-Lake resident Keith McDermid. “Just an eyeball test of the summer-long standing water in what used to be a dry Edgewater Park tells me the water table is already within 10 feet of my basement, where my sewer pipes are. These are on the same plane as the pipes of other homes, just blocks away, that are breaking.”
McDermid said he has other concerns with the Park Board and the city’s strategies for managing rising water.
About a dozen years ago, the Minneapolis Park Board created the basins around Lake Nokomis, designed to filter storm water as it entered the water table, he said. “They do clean the lake and are important if managed correctly to allow water to flow through them. Instead, they have become just places to store more water.
“I was introduced to these landscape plans for the ponds as an architecture student at the University of Minnesota 15 years ago,” he said. “I knew they were going to get out of hand and argued that they would spread into Edgewater Park. I was told that they were controllable, would be clean and the neighborhood will benefit from them. Instead, they have grown, have green stagnant water in them and attract swarms of mosquitos and gnats. This spring there were carp in them.
“Most of the time they are stagnant and have grown out of proportion, beyond the Park Board’s water management capabilities.” McDermid believes that these ponds also contributed to the closing of the popular Lake Nokomis beaches this summer.
“Again, we are asking officials to reevaluate current water management practices in a known wetland area that was developed and continues to be developed,” said Soholt. “Who will help protect our homes? We have been asking this question for four years knowing more precipitation is headed our way. Where is the support from our county commissioner, City Council members, our Park Board commissioner?”
Soholt wants to encourage anyone who has had any problems caused by the increasing quantities of water to contact her, at her email address joanwatershed@gmail.com. She plans to forward what she learns to Mager and his university study.
She especially needs information from those living near Sibley Park, Lake Hiawatha, the south side of Lake Harriet and Lake Nokomis, areas near the golf course and even those near Taft Lake, to report any problems, she said.
“This includes water that percolates up through their basement floors and cannot be fixed by landscaping, shifting or sinking foundations, standing water in backyards that doesn’t dry out, broken infrastructure with costly repairs, possibly due to pumping groundwater, cracked basement walls or sinkholes.” she said.
“They should share anything having to do with mitigating water on their property or even if they just see something in the neighborhood,” she said. It will be a way to keep track of increasing water problems.
She also urges anyone who is concerned to contact their local officials at all levels, including their state, county and city representatives and members of the Minneapolis Park Board.

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