Minnesota River's revival gaining steam

There's growing interest in treating the Minnesota River not as a ditch but as a treasure.

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A cyclist sped along the river valley on the Big Rivers Regional Trail in Mendota Heights.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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After decades of neglect and abuse, cities and counties along the volatile banks of the Minnesota River are plotting billions of dollars in riverside developments and spending millions to buy and refurbish land, bridges, trails and parks.

Some believe the movement will finally unlock the river's potential as a recreational hub and a magnet for development.

"For 60 years we've viewed it as more of a nuisance than a resource," said Tim Lies, the mayor of Belle Plaine. "Even in a riverfront city like mine, people don't understand it, or are afraid of it, or are living under old ideas about how dirty and unmanageable it is."

But decades into an agonizingly slow and monumentally expensive cleanup, a vision is forming of a third major amenity alongside the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers.

"Eventually, the way things are going, you will have 80 miles of riverfront from Fort Snelling to Le Sueur almost totally in public hands," said Mark Themig, Scott County's chief of parks and trails, "That's a huge, incredible resource -- far surpassing in some senses even the St. Croix."

Any real transformation will take years, even decades. But the roll call of who's doing what includes almost every city and county sharing the river's shores within the metro area.

Among them:

Burnsville is laying the groundwork for a $700 million urban village on 1,700 riverfront acres, much of it now occupied by a quarry and garbage dumps.

Bloomington next month is expected to approve plans for its own urban village that would transform the bleak landscape of parking lots east of the Mall of America and more than double the number of entry points to the riverfront trail system, from three to seven.

Scott and Dakota counties have just completed major trail plans. Scott has the money to create a 4-mile link between Shakopee and the Bloomington Ferry Bridge, and Carver County has closed on the land needed for a new river crossing that will allow, in time, for biking all the way up to Lake Minnetonka.

At the same time, close to $50 million in federal dollars is gradually being spent to buy land and extend public ownership of the riverbanks to the south. And the state is getting rolling on the completion of an extensive river trail first authorized in 1969.

Skeptics, smelling change in the winds, warn of battles to come.

Shakopee City Council Member Matt Lehman foresees attempts to "wipe out private property and kick everyone out to redevelop the riverfront," adding, during a candidate forum: "Whoa, this is millions and millions of dollars of public expenses with lawsuits and constitutional questions, and is that government's role? We need to take a step back and take a deep breath."

Activists, smelling the same change, are ramping up the pressure. An hour-long documentary on the river, broadcast on television last summer, is up on the Web. A YouTube video and a vivid website depicting the muddy Minnesota merging with a sweetly clear Mississippi are meant to apply pressure both to the remaining polluters upriver and to Bloomington and others standing in the way of fully completed trails.

If progress on the Minnesota has been halting, there are a host of reasons.

Even when the appeal and the routes seem obvious, trails can be tricky to complete. Just ask Bloomington.

Jim Gates, deputy director of public works, said the city lost state grant money in the 1980s when residents and planners got hung up on whether to build a paved trail or a more natural path through what is, after all, a wildlife refuge, not a park.

'The missing link'

The city also has struggled to complete a river crossing for cyclists and pedestrians on the old Cedar Avenue bridge, stuck in a debate over reconstruction or rehabilitation of the crumbling structure. The result, despite decades of trying? "We're the missing link," Gates conceded.

In other places, barriers are rooted in history and geography.

The Minnesota at various points in the metro is disconnected from its neighbors by towering bluffs, vast flood plains, increasingly frequent and disruptive floods, and a tradition of treating it as a backyard outlet whose shores are suitable for garbage dumps.

When Burnsville Mayor Elizabeth Kautz refers to her home as a river city, she gets quizzical looks: Most of the city is high on the southern bluffs, without even a peek at any actual water. "There's distance," she said, "and because there's that distance, it's not part of people's identities."

Others are less dainty in their descriptions. "Twenty years ago, the paradigm was, no one gave a crap about the Minnesota River," said Scott Sparlin, executive director of the Coalition for a Clean River, one of three major nonprofits working in the Minnesota basin. "Along some stretches, the river feels like the Boundary Waters. There are places where you are alone in nature and don't see a soul. Yet people didn't care whatsoever."

The river's condition is proof of that. It's been a destination for uncountable tons of agricultural runoff along its western reaches, and that has contributed to a murky appearance and led to pollution and silt buildup observable in places downstream, from Lake Pepin all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

As recently as this year, a state report depicted the river as little cleaner than it was before hundreds of millions were spent starting in the '90s to halt plowing up land near its banks and install new and improved sewer treatment in scores of small towns. That report, and some of the comments it inspired, still has some activists seething.

"For a problem that started out this bad," Sparlin said, "we've made incredible progress. People don't have a clue."

Wilderness in the city

To descend from the highways, with their grim views of barges and power plants, and to slide out onto the river itself is to find it a valley teeming with natural beauty. Towering cottonwoods and silver maples stand out in a flood-plain forest, largely devoid of underbrush. Waterfowl and migratory birds thrive, using the river as a natural highway of sorts.

"When you come down here, you'll see and hear coyotes, lots of eagles. There's fishing year round," said Bob Piotrowski, manager of Fort Snelling State Park.

Balancing preservation of this habitat with recreational development will be an ongoing concern.

Still, many of those in a position to change things speak passionately of the potential.

"It flows right by us, but we just don't take advantage of it," said Tom Egan, Dakota County commissioner whose district includes the river. "That's a tragedy."

Tim Lies's Belle Plaine has a new trail link reaching as far as it can toward the river, and last month drew more than 500 runners to a first-ever half-marathon on scenic roads along its length.

Steve Sullivan, Dakota County's parks chief, is among those newly hopeful.

"There's a lot of us that think this could be Minnesota's greenway," he said. "It could serve a lot of people. It has the name of the state. It deserves respect, and it hasn't always gotten that."

dapeterson@startribune.com 952-746-3285 katie.humphrey@startribune.com 952-746-3286

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