Edina creek banks in line for improvements

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 27, 2011 - 4:00 PM

A third of the residents with homes on Minnehaha Creek between 54th St. and France Av. are considering a watershed district offer to pay for plantings.

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A conceptual image of possible plantings to stabilize banks and buffer habitat on the Minnehaha Creek shoreline

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In an Edina neighborhood with million-dollar homes, most people bought their houses largely because the property backed onto Minnehaha Creek. They want to see the water.

Janet Skalicky and her husband see more of the creek than they once did; part of a garden at the creek's edge washed away this spring in a flood. Another resident, Susan Brown, who planted native plants by the creek, can still see the water from her home on a hill. But a man who wanted to remain anonymous and who lives on a flat lot nearby said he mows the grass right down to some rocks at the edge of the creek. He likes it that way.

"My attitude is that the creek has been here for 10,000 years ... and doesn't seem to have changed," he said. "I live on the creek, I pay taxes on the creek, and I want to see the creek. If they plant three-foot grasses down there, I can't see the creek."

The three homeowners live along a three-quarter-mile length of creek between 54th Street and France Avenue that the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District has targeted for voluntary creek bank stabilization and improvement. The district surveyed 56 homeowners, asking them if they'd be interested in modifying their part of the stream bank if the district paid all or most of the cost. Twenty-nine households replied, with 15 saying they were interested in participating, six saying they might take part and eight saying "no."

The watershed district has since committed $345,000 to the project, estimating that perhaps 20 property owners might take part. About $100,000 to $120,000 of that amount would be devoted to design costs and in-stream habitat improvements, like the addition of rocks to create spawning spots for fish.

Next spring, designers will meet with homeowners who want to take part, creating individual plans for plantings along the creek. Buffer areas will be at least 10 feet wide and homeowners will approve the design and pick their plants. The watershed district will pay the full cost of stream bank work and native plantings, which is estimated at $10,000 to $15,000 per property.

"This is kind of a first," said Telly Mamayek, communications manager for the watershed district. "This is a great opportunity to engage homeowners. We're pleased with the response we received."

The Edina City Council gave the project its blessing last week.

Now, the properties that flank the creek range from lawns mowed right down to the creek edge to yards with gardens or native plantings. Some yards have a riprap or boulder edge, others a muddy creek bank.

For much of its length through the neighborhood, the creek's route is straight, narrow and unshaded. A 2004 study found that habitat there was poor for reptiles, amphibians and fish, with water too warm, little depth and closely mowed grass or riprap made of giant boulders that are unfriendly to wildlife. While the watershed district has "remeandered" the creek in other locations -- notably near Methodist Hospital -- to slow erosion and create habitat, that can't be done in the Edina location because homes line both sides of the creek.

Even modest plantings of native vegetation would improve the creek's condition, a district report said. Native plants have deep roots that help hold banks in place, and a buffer of those same plants would catch and absorb lawn fertilizer, chemicals from rooftops and other contaminants that wash into the creek during rainstorms.

One of the surveyed homeowners' biggest concerns was that they wanted to see the creek. Mamayek said creek-friendly plants include short varieties that wouldn't create much of a visual barrier. Plant buffers also could include a path so people would retain access to the creek, she said.

Skalicky and Brown said they were excited about the project. Skalicky's family has lived on a curving section of the creek for 15 years, where her kids grew up tubing and ice skating on a creek that attracted deer, mink, fox and coyotes.

Her family's property spans the creek, and plantings across the water are taller to hide other homes from view. On the yard side of the creek, part of the garden washed away this spring, and she and her husband talked about replacing the plants and adding riprap. So the watershed district project is timely, she said.

"We do like the more native plantings," she said.

Brown's house sits high on a hill overlooking the creek. She began adding native plants near the creek edge about three years ago because she wanted to stop fertilizer from washing into the water and to create better wildlife habitat.

"I am trying to bring my garden into being more of a native garden, with plants that are more in touch with what's natural to this region," she said. "For those of us who live with difficult, steep backyards, this is a godsend to figure out what to do back there."

Yards along the creek now vary widely in their appearance. Brown said that even in a city where residents expect yards to be carefully maintained, people are increasingly receptive to a wilder look by the creek.

"Landscape architects are making native landscapes more soothing to the eye and making it easier to work into the urban landscape with better designs," Brown said. "But there are households that want that golf course look. ... I respect peoples' individual rights to like or not like different looks."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380

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