Sometimes simpler is not better: a response by Carol Dungan and Friends of Lake Hiawatha

If you’ve been following discussions about the Hiawatha Master Plan involving the lake and golf course, you can be forgiven for feeling a bit of déjà vu. That’s because some supposedly simple solutions keep being proposed as alternatives to an “expensive” master plan. You may have heard “do this one thing, it’ll solve everything!” because, hey, who doesn’t like a simple solution that costs almost nothing and solves everything? For some, the solution to the complex problems at hand boils down to removing a weir at the 27th Street walking bridge, accompanied by claims that doing so will lower the lake and keep the golf course and adjacent homes flood-free.

Let’s recap the problem with facts I think we all agree on: Hiawatha Golf Course was built in the late 1920s on a floodplain with dredged wetland material from historic Rice Lake. (I say “historic” because the lake and the land were part of the vast homelands of the Dakota people, from whom they were taken by deceit or by force.) The Minnesota Historical Society has photos of the area pre-dredging, showing a massive flat wetland stretching from 28th Avenue to Cedar. So all those rolling hills our homes and parks were built on? Man-made.

In the 1950s, as Hiawatha Golf Course gained a following among local Black golfers, its sodden foundation required pumping into adjacent Lake Hiawatha to keep the greens playable. Think of a sponge that is already soaking wet. The only way to soak up more water is to squeeze out the existing water. Pumping accelerated in 1992 but was permitted only to remove stormwater. At some unknown point in time, MPRB began pumping groundwater of between 300-400 million gallons per year – the only thing that keeps the course consistently dry. In violation of environmental law, MPRB had vastly exceeded permitted levels and type of pumping. Then came the flood of 2014, which cost an estimated $4 million to fix. The illegal pumping was discovered, and the master plan process began.

In addition to remediating the flooding issues, the master plan diverts trash and polluted runoff into planned filtration and catchment areas, preserves nine holes of challenging golf, and introduces meaningful education and acknowledgment of the area’s complicated history – for Black golfers who created a safe space for all, and the Dakota peoples from whom the land was forcibly taken.

A frequently mentioned alternative to the master plan is removing a weir under the 27th Street walking bridge. But this is only one piece of a multipart case scenario outlined by Barr Engineering in 2017, not a solution in and of itself. Barr’s scenario would also require significant dredging of the creek from the outlet to Nokomis Avenue, reconstruction of bridges at 30th and Nokomis, redesign or lowering several sanitary sewers and a water main at 28th, and removal of an abandoned gas main. All of this would be at an unknown cost both to taxpayers and critical habitats to lower the lake by one to one and a half feet. Is this a significant amount? Not really. A quick calculation yields a total of approximately 37 million gallons of potential reduction in pumping into Lake Hiawatha but compared to the current level of 400 million gallons a year, it’s less than is pumped into Lake Hiawatha, on average, in a month.

One unfortunate aspect of the divisive dialogue around the master plan has been misinformation about how it will lead to flooding basements of adjacent homes. MPRB Commissioner Cathy Abene, who is a licensed professional engineer in Minnesota and has been working in water resources for the public sector for most of her career, confirmed to Friends of Lake Hiawatha that homeowners shouldn’t be afraid that the nine-hole plan will fill in the floodplain. This is because the final version of the plan must and will accommodate flood storage.

The design for the nine-hole plan is only schematic at this point. I think that gets lost in all the back and forth between 18-hole advocates and those who support the nine-hole compromise plan. First, the plan must be voted on by commissioners. Once it’s accepted by a majority, it goes into the process of securing funding. Once funded, a full engineering design process begins, and adjustments are made to ensure the desired outcomes. But those adjustments can’t be made until we move ahead. The costs of further delay are only making the solutions more expensive and risking another flooding catastrophe – and FEMA will not help foot the bill. We should pass the master plan and secure the futures of both the lake and sustainable golf at Hiawatha Golf Course.

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