Minnehaha Falls restoration starts todayby Stephanie Hemphill, Minnesota Public Radio
In the next several months, Minnehaha Falls will get a make-over. It will involve some much-needed repairs, but there'll also be some work to improve the ecology of the place.
Minneapolis — Is there anyone who doesn't love Minnehaha Falls?
Couples of all ages stroll on the paths, holding hands and gazing at the tumbling water. Children play in the river. Teenagers carve their initials in the sandstone bluffs. Even President Lyndon B. Johnson put his footprints in a cement slab near the top of the falls, according to a plaque at the site.
"The fact of the matter is, there's just no place else in the Twin Cities area like it," says Mike Wyatt, a planner at the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District.
"It's a treasure, and it's right here in our own back yard."
The Watershed District is one of several government agencies cooperating on the re-build. Wyatt says the falls is special partly because of the stone retaining walls built along the banks by the Works Progress Administration, the WPA, one of the major agencies of Roosevelt's New Deal.
They lasted 60 years, and then a big rain in 2005 washed some of them out completely, and undercut others.
"See how far that's scoured out -- the river is flowing under the wall, and it goes back about three feet deep," Wyatt says. "You could stick your entire arm under there and still not touch the other side. Basically what they'll be coming in here to do is excavating that entire area underneath the walls, and then putting a new footing in."
But it's not just the walls that'll be rebuilt. The project involves ripping out invasive buckthorn and planting native plants to stabilize the stream banks.
In one place, the steep bank is not much more than bare dirt, with the exposed roots of trees desperately trying to hold things together. This is a place where people love to climb the bank, but they're loving it to death. Wyatt wants them to be able to play mountaineer, without wrecking the mountain.
"We're going to build a climbing staircase," Wyatt says. "A staircase that's really vertical, so it gives people an opportunity climb a little bit and scramble up the hillside, but it's not going to result in the hillside eroding."
If you think about it, it's a small miracle the creek isn't in worse shape. The land that drains into Minnehaha Creek covers 180 square miles -- and a lot of that is city land, with roofs and streets and parking lots dumping their loads of polluted storm water into the creek.
"When the storm water comes off the bluffs, it's coming down very fast, there's a lot of it, and it's eroding the hillsides and it's eroding things into the creek, which causes a water quality program not only for the creek, but all the way down to the river," says Wyatt.
The Minnesota Veterans Home sits just above the narrow glen, and you can see the remains of a failed effort to control its runoff.
They're called gabions, and they're basically chest-high walls of rocks held together by chain link fencing.
"What it's designed to do is fill up with water, and then the water will slowly leak out the sides," says Wyatt. "But what it does in reality is the water just flows directly underneath the rock."
And the water rushes right into the creek. Now, the Veterans Home will try to keep more of that runoff up on the bluff. They'll build basins under some of their parking lots; the storm water will be directed to the basins, where it will seep slowly into the soil. When the basins are full and it's still raining, pipes will carry the runoff to new rain gardens next to the creek.
On the other side of the creek, shallow sandstone caves are an irresistible attraction for some of the 850,000 people who visit this place every year.
It's a popular spot, and it's showing its wear and tear. Wyatt says the plan is to build a path with rock slabs, to direct traffic and improve access to the sandstone wall.
"You touch it on your fingertips and it just crumbles apart," he says "It's a pretty neat geological feature."
Access to the Glen will be restricted during the main part of the work, starting this winter.
The project will cost nearly $6 million. The Watershed District is working with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, the Minnesota Veterans Home, the state, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
- Morning Edition, 11/21/2008, 6:50 a.m.