Soon it will be difficult to tell that a 10-acre site in the west metro was once a sewage plant.
More than 60 years after a wetland and creek were altered for the wastewater treatment plant, the site is being rescued, turned back into the grassy wetland and meandering creek it was decades ago.
"It was just a kind of hole in the ground," said Mike Hayman, project manager with the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District. Now "you're going to see a big ecological shift."
As traffic hummed by on nearby Hwy. 12, crews worked this week to build up the stream banks of Long Lake Creek, which flows between Long Lake and Tanager Lake. The stream was straightened into a ditch in the 1950s to make way for the plant, abandoned in the 1970s. It left behind a site clogged with dense buckthorn and a pond collecting water from nearby streets.
Now crews are transforming the area, clearing out the weeds and remnants of the plant, carving out a 550-foot meandering creek channel and filling in the area with 30,000 plants — from wild rice to native grasses.
"It will look completely different," Hayman said.
Decades ago, zigzagging creeks and rivers across Minnesota were straightened or ditched to make room for development or farming. But as a result, scientists say, steeper slopes increased erosion, took away habitat for animals and birds and contributed to sediment buildup downstream, increasing pollution of nearby waterways.
"It was easier to move the stream out of the way," Hayman said. "And now we're seeing the damage it's done."
To try to reverse that, the Minnetonka-based watershed district has re-meandered parts of Minnehaha Creek in St. Louis Park. In Hopkins, the Nine Mile Creek Watershed District restored and rerouted a portion of the creek there a few years ago. And the Department of Natural Resources has helped with about 150 stream restoration projects across the state, about half of which re-meandered streams, said Ian Chisholm, supervisor of the DNR's stream habitat program.
Bringing creeks back to their initial curves slows down water, stabilizing banks and improving water quality, especially with new wetlands filtering out pollutants, he said.
"Lakes are really the focus in Minnesota; we love our lakes. Streams have really been ignored," Chisholm said. "We're starting to understand the impacts they have."
In the west metro, Long Lake Creek flows nearly 3 miles from Long Lake through a culvert under Hwy. 12, through wetland and wooded areas of Orono, connecting to Tanager Lake, which has an outlet into Browns Bay on Lake Minnetonka. The watershed district hopes restoration work will help water quality not just on the creek, but in Tanager — which is on the state's list of "impaired" waters because of high nutrient levels — and Minnetonka.
Crews started work in January and did a controlled burn in February to kill off invasive species like buckthorn. Then last week, crews carved out the new creek channel and put it "online." By the end of this week, excavation and grading work will be done. And in May and June, crews will fill in the area with thousands of native grasses, sedges, and forbs.
Already, a flock of Canada geese gave its approval Tuesday, settling into the water as a light snow fell. Fox, owls and eagles have also been spotted at the site.
A second phase planned by the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District includes restoring eroded banks of the creek, working with homeowners; no timeline is slated yet.
The current $400,000 project, off Orono Orchard Road and Stoneridge Circle, was funded by the watershed district and Metropolitan Council. It was something on the city's radar for years, Long Lake City Administrator Scott Weske said, but not possible for the city to do on its own.
"It's a good thing for the city," he said, adding about the former wastewater plant and pond: "It's just not something you want in your back yard or your city."