A long-dormant waterfall on the north end of St. Paul’s Lake Phalen will begin burbling and gurgling to life again next spring, the latest in a string of improvements at one of the most popular regional parks in the Twin Cities.
Crews on Monday began working on the stone work of the waterfall, which stands about 15 feet high along a walking path encircling the lake on the city’s East Side. “It’s been on our to-do list for quite some time,” said Rich Kramer, a founding member of the Friends of Lake Phalen and a Metropolitan Council member.
The $296,000 project, funded with Legacy Amendment money, will restore the waterfall to its original appearance from when it was built in the early 1950s, said Bryan Murphy, project manager with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
Then, as now, the waterfall’s purpose will be more than aesthetic.
“Originally, there was a well dug with it, and water flowed from the well to Lake Phalen to supplement the water levels, which were receding at times,” Murphy said.
For years, Kramer said, Lake Phalen at its south end had a leaky spot along its bottom, causing frequent drawdowns. In the 1960s, the city was allowed to tap into the groundwater to supplement the lake during those dry spells.
At some point, an underwater sandbar was built that plugged the leak, and the city was no longer allowed to use the well, he said. The waterfall’s limestone walls sat high and dry, a homely remnant of a pleasant amenity now serving no purpose. “It’s been a feature of the park that’s been unused for decades,” Murphy said.
The push to restore the waterfall began several years ago with the development of the updated Phalen-Keller Regional Park master plan, the guiding document for the future of the two adjoining parks — which draw more than 1 million people annually — straddling the St. Paul-Maplewood border.
“Among people in the community, this turned out to be one of the most popular projects in the plan,” Kramer said. “It was rated very high.”
The new waterfall will draw water from the lake using a pump set in a nearby enclosed chamber 14 feet deep, Murphy said. The pump will draw the water through one channel, where it will go up and over the waterfall’s limestone cascade, then exit by gravity out through a second channel back to the lake. The churning action of the water will act as an aerator, he added, helping the lake’s plants and fish by putting oxygen in the water.
Decorative metal grates will be installed on the pedestrian-bike path over the two channels, which should add to its appeal by allowing people to see the water’s flow.
“The old waterfall used corrugated metal pipes under the ground — you really didn’t get that sense of its connection between the waterfall and the lake,” he said.
Work on the waterfall is expected to be done by the end of November. It will be turned on in the spring, Murphy said, and it will run on a timer, probably from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
The waterfall project follows last year’s $1.3 million restoration of Phalen Park’s Stone Arch Bridge, a 1910 span considered a longtime eyesore that has been revived both in appearance and safety.
The bridge crosses one of the many man-made channels connecting Phalen, Keller and Round lakes.
Several other projects at Phalen Park also are on tap, Kramer said.
Work is underway to restore the lake’s Picnic Island, surrounded by those channels. The first step has been clearing the silt that has built up in the channel, he said. Paddling on the lake and in the channels has been a popular activity, but the clogged conditions have been an impediment.
Storms have taken their toll on the island’s trees, and the turf has taken a beating from heavy grazing by geese and picnickers.
Plans call for a new picnic shelter; replanting trees; re-establishing a healthy turf to accommodate that heavy recreational use; and using shoreline plantings to discourage access to the island by geese.