Commentary: Let's see how new law protects springs

Sharon Sayles Belton and Pam Blixt

Star Tribune (Minneapolis-St. Paul)

Published Sunday, May 27, 2001

"Neither the state, nor a unit of metropolitan government, nor a political subdivision of the state may take any action that may diminish the flow of water to or from Camp Coldwater Springs. All projects must be reviewed under the Minnesota Historic Sites Act and the Minnesota Field Archaeology Act with regard to the flow of water to or from Camp Coldwater Springs."
-- Minnesota Senate File 2049.

Gov. Jesse Ventura on May 15 signed into law a bill recognizing Camp Coldwater Springs as a historical landmark that also aims to protect the integrity of the natural springs' flow. While this clarifying law is a triumph for Minnesota history and all its citizens who enjoy and honor Camp Coldwater Springs, the controversy surrounding this beleaguered area is not over.

For two years, the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District (MCWD) has been warning the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) about potential impacts to the springs because of its inadequate design of the drainage system at the Hwy. 55 / Crosstown Hwy. 62 interchange. MnDOT has refused to acknowledge that such a threat might exist, let alone test for it.

To try to resolve the debate over whether construction could affect flow, the MCWD hired a respected University of Minnesota geologist to conduct an inexpensive, environmentally friendly dye test to trace ground water flow. If dye showed up at the springs, it would indicate that construction would affect the flow of water to the springs; if not, MnDOT could continue and the debate would be over. Simple solution.

Instead, MnDOT threw up bureaucratic barriers and delayed the tests while it began construction that would prevent any testing. After a month and a half of wrangling, the district and MnDOT agreed to perform the tests but not on the interchange site. Partial testing and previous research had shown that flow to the springs might be reduced 30 percent, an unacceptable number.

Last week MnDOT said that it will not temporarily stop its dewatering (draining the construction site of ground water in order to build) to accommodate the necessary third test, nor will it modify its drainage design. The district then went to court to seek a temporary legal injunction to stop dewatering and construction long enough to finish its business at the interchange site. MnDOT argued that doing so would significantly delay the LRT construction, which is simply not true.

MnDOT's seemingly capricious and autonomous actions have led to unnecessary and expensive legal action to protect the springs, while the facts -- and drainage system alternatives -- are fairly simple. MCWD's consulting engineer reports that construction of the Hwy. 62 area "will permanently change the direction and slope of shallow groundwater gradients in the area." That consultant has a standard remedy for any disruption of flow that would not disrupt MnDOT's project, although it will add to project costs, just as MnDOT's delaying actions have added to the MCWD's costs of performing its duties. Of course no one could put a price on losing Camp Coldwater Springs.

The first test of the new law is here. Responsible action is needed now to protect the springs' flow and its history. Should the springs be diminished, its history will likewise be diminished, and the value of the law -- and the land -- will become negligible.

-- Sharon Sayles Belton is mayor of Minneapolis. Pam Blixt is board president of the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District.

"Copyright 2000 Star Tribune. Republished here with the permission of the Star Tribune. No further republication or redistribution is permitted without the express approval of the Star Tribune."