People who live around Lake Nokomis and Lake Hiawatha are demanding answers about why water has been inundating their neighborhood, damaging houses, washing out sewer pipes and turning some yards into swamps.
More than 100 people attended a meeting near Nokomis in south Minneapolis Wednesday night. Many want U.S. Geological Survey scientists to study the problem, akin to its high-profile work examining low water levels at White Bear Lake.
“We have collected over 80 addresses that have had sewer line fractures, sinkholes, water in basements, and shifting foundations, with repair costs ranging from $5,000 to $60,000,” said resident Joan Soholt, who has been canvassing areas around Lake Nokomis.
Their concerns come amid another simmering debate over whether the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board should stop pumping water from the soggy Hiawatha Golf Course, which would then flood the course and potentially some nearby basements. The course surrounds Lake Hiawatha.
A number of residents believe the cause of the problem is buried somewhere in the network of dams and pipes that alter the flow of water through the Minnehaha Creek watershed, which drains Lake Minnetonka, parts of Richfield and the airport through their neighborhood.
But watershed officials say there’s a simpler answer: Rain. 2016 was the wettest year on record in the Twin Cities, and the two years before that were among the top 15 wettest.
“We aren’t just seeing this in Minneapolis,” said Tiffany Schaufler, project and land manager at the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, which operates a Lake Minnetonka dam that controls the flow of water through the creek. “We’re seeing this across our whole watershed where things are still natural [and] there isn’t the human intervention piece.”
‘Spring under the house’
Among the more visible changes has been the degradation of Solomon Park, just west of Lake Nokomis. Teresa Miller, who lives alongside the park, has pictures of canoes floating and cattails growing where her lawn once grew. She paid someone to fill it in with dirt, but now it is sinking again and a thick forest of mature trees behind it is toppling over.
“I would say we’ve lost probably a third of our backyard,” Miller said. “I cried a lot. And I called. Complained. And no one helped me.”
Miller and her neighbors have also had to buy flood insurance after the Federal Emergency Management Agency redrew flood maps to include their properties.
For the first time in the two decades Alice Ferdinand has lived in her home, water has seeped through the fireplace and pooled in a basement family room. It also came up from below.
“I’ve seen it bubbling up through the floor,” Ferdinand said. “That was the one that amazed me … it’s like there’s a spring under the house.”
Sean O’Brien has also watched water seep up into his house.
“My only conclusion has to be that the hydrostatic pressure from the water table has risen and it’s now getting to the point where that’s forcing water up through the center of my basement,” said O’Brien, an engineer.
At Hope Lutheran Church just south of Lake Nokomis, an elevator shaft filled with 17 inches of water last winter — the first time that’s happened in Charlie Olson’s nearly two decades as property manager.
“I would sump it out and then in about two days it would fill right back up,” Olson said. It dropped to eight inches last summer, but hasn’t been problematic this winter, he said.
Amy Strabala, who lives near the western shore of Lake Nokomis, has video of her children flying a kite on a field that no longer exists.
“That whole area used to be just a grassy area, which is now completely gone to wetland marshland. And at a very aggressive rate,” Strabala said.
Finding a cause
A slew of government agencies has a role in managing water in the area.
Representatives of many of them were on hand Wednesday night, including legislators, City Council members, USGS scientists, officials with the state Department of Natural Resources and Minnehaha Creek Watershed District and others.
The DNR is coordinating the preliminary work.
“You have high precipitation in addition to all of those man-made things that have occurred within the watershed,” said Dan Lais, the DNR’s Central Regional Manager. “Is there one that’s contributing more than it used to?”
Perry Jones with USGS said this situation is distinct from White Bear Lake because the Minneapolis lakes are interconnected. “It’s very complex as far as the history of what’s gone on down in this area, with rerouting of systems,” Jones said. “Here you’ve got a large, complex watershed to address. So there’s not simple answers.”
Jerry Mullin, who presented Wednesday night on behalf of the Lake Hiawatha area, said the problems there are similar to those around Nokomis. He cited sinkholes, settling houses and streets that stay flooded for days.
“The common thread is that we have serious groundwater high-water table issues in this part of the watershed,” he said. “And it’s not well understood as to why these problems have arisen in the last five years.”
In a letter to the DNR, Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, said heavy rains will become more common due to climate change. She also highlighted a number of infrastructure changes affecting the water flow.
“I’ve represented this area for a long time,” Wagenius said. “People are telling me this has never happened before. And I’ve never heard of it before, either. So I trust what I’m hearing.”