It's difficult to tell that Minnehaha Creek is nearby in some parts of St. Louis Park and Hopkins.

Unlike south Minneapolis, where the creek is visible and surrounded by parkland, grand trees and paved trails, the creek's suburban pathway was changed and hidden away by development.

Roads, buildings, loading docks and parking lots were pushed to the edge of the creek, which in some cases was even rerouted or straightened to make room during the post-World War II heyday of commercial and industrial construction.

"That's why it's so straight through this area," said Mike Hayman, Minnehaha Creek Watershed District assistant planner, on a recent walking tour of the creek. "Its profile is like a ditch, rather than what the creek was naturally."

Now, the creek is about to be restored to its more natural route. Crews are gearing up to redirect water through a series of curves, reconnect wetlands, enhance wildlife habitat, and build trails and canoe landings.

The project, led by the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, is the latest phase in upgrading the creek's water quality, visual appeal and public access.

"For too long, we've kind of turned our back to the creek," said St. Louis Park City Manager Tom Harmening. But public attitudes have changed, he said, and people have rediscovered the importance of streams and rivers. "There's real value to those natural amenities and we should turn towards them," he said.

Help from history

Hayman hiked in the mostly dry creekbed where the sand revealed an occasional clamshell, half-buried tire and even a rusty shopping cart. Every few hundred feet, a plastic, metal or concrete storm drainage pipe jutted out of the banks.

Hayman said the district will spend about $1.1 million to restore 3,000 feet of the creek between Louisiana Avenue and Meadowbrook Road. He and others have studied the topography and aerial photographs from the 1940s and '50s to learn how the creek flowed.

This winter crews will excavate several areas and rechannel the water into a series of lazy curves that mimic its historic route, Hayman said. In the process, they will slow down the flow and increase the creek's length by 1,600 feet. The changes will reduce erosion and sediment, he said, and create pools and riffles that will benefit fish and other wildlife.

Restoring the natural curves, known as re-meandering, also will reconnect the creek to wetlands in the corridor, Hayman said. Moving the channel away from the storm water pipes will allow those wetlands to filter out runoff pollutants from nearby streets, rooftops and parking lots before the drainage reaches the creek, he said.

"Whatever we can do to slow down the runoff, reduce the amount of runoff, clean the runoff, is going to benefit the water for us to enjoy downstream in our lakes and streams," said district spokeswoman Telly Mamayek.

The district received $300,000 for the project from a Clean Water Legacy Grant, she said, and will fund the remaining $800,000 from its budget.

The 22-mile creek flows from Lake Minnetonka through the cities of Minnetonka and Hopkins to St. Louis Park, and from there through Edina and south Minneapolis to the Mississippi River. The upcoming work will match a stretch of the creek just downstream near Methodist Hospital that was re-meandered and restored in 2008-09.

St. Louis Park has a role

Harmening said St. Louis Park is excited about the upcoming improvement, and is coordinating with the district to install a new trail along the creek and a bridge at the same time the creek is being rerouted.

"Our share of that is about $500,000," Harmening said, and there has been strong public support for closer access to the creek.

"I'm feeling more and more confident that we're going to be able to make that happen," he said.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388