Minneapolis Park Board At-Large and the apparent #1 Issue: the Hiawatha Golf Course

Whoo, this race. There are nine people running for three at-large seats. I had insomnia the other night and decided that a good way to get to sleep faster would be to get out of bed, pull up the list of candidates and their websites from the Secretary of State site, and take a look at everyone’s web page to see if maybe half of them were like that guy running for School Board in St. Paul with the web site saying “you should hire me as your lawyer!” with zero information about his stances on anything (and really no reason to hire him as a lawyer).

What I discovered is that the key issue in this year’s race appears to be the Hiawatha Golf Course. And that’s a really tough issue for me to grapple with, because I really, truly, do not give even 1/10th of a shit about golf. Which doesn’t mean I hate golf courses: that would require an opinion of golf, and I really don’t have one. Literally the only things I’ve done on golf courses were not golf: I have cross-country skied on the Highland Golf Course. In Madison, Wisconsin, when I was a teenager, I once went to the Glenway Golf Course at 1 a.m. and ran through the sprinklers with a bunch of other teenagers. (“Sounds fun. Don’t get arrested,” my father said when I called to tell him where I was going when we finished closing the frozen custard stand where I worked.) I’m not sure I even have any friends these days who play golf. But it’s not as if I have anything in particular against golf. There are lots of things the parks provide facilities for that I don’t use. I feel like the public compact we all make with parks is that we all get some of the stuff we want, and that means when we go to the park, we’ll see plenty of stuff we have no interest in mixed in with the stuff we came for. Part of what I love about the Minneapolis parks system is that it’s very oriented toward use, and I’m pretty sure that goes all the way back to Theodore Wirth, who broke with earlier park designers who were building parks to be strolled through and admired, not played in.

But if, say, there’s suddenly an explosion of interest in polo, and so they build two polo fields, and then people lose interest in polo and those fields are sitting there empty, or it turns out the fields have to be extensively rebuilt every two years because of wear-and-tear from horse hoofs, I also think it’s entirely reasonable to consider re-purposing those fields. Yeah, you lose your investment, but that’s also true every time the library discards a copy of Microsoft Windows 2000 For Dummies or puts one of the 36,000 copies of Twilight it bought back in the day in the pile for the Friends sale. Not all investments have to be permanent.

But okay. Getting back to the actual issue at hand: the Hiawatha Golf Course is slated to be closed down. From what I can understand, it flooded really badly in 2014, and when staff went to figure out why it flooded so badly, they realized that there are some really significant water problems at the course — water from Lake Hiawatha seeps out of the lake and into the golf course, and to keep the golf course from being constantly flooded, the city has been pumping it back into the lake. This is a problem because they have a permit from the DNR to pump 36 million gallons per year  and they’ve been pumping about 240 million gallons, and that’s a lot more than they’re supposed to be pumping. Also, any time the golf course floods like it did in 2014, the city has to spend a pile of money to fix it up for use again.

The “we have to pump lots of water into the lake” is presented as an obvious problem in basically all the articles about it and no one explains why this is a problem.

Star Tribune“They are pumping an awful amount of water, and they have been doing it for decades,” said Joe Richter, DNR groundwater appropriations hydrologist. “I think it’s time for them to assess what’s happening with the parcel and to make plans into the future to use it in a way that’s reasonable.”

City PagesThe Hiawatha Golf Course can stay in business by continuing to pump at least 242 million gallons of groundwater annually into Lake Hiawatha, even though the Park Board’s permit allots for only 36.5 million gallons per year. And it’s only a matter of time before it incurs the wrath of the DNR, the agency with the power to yank said permit.

Southwest JournalCommissioners considered an alternative scenario that would continue the pumping of approximately 242 million gallons of water to keep the course open. At one point, Park Board-owned facilities were pumping out approximately 260 million gallons of water annually, much more than was permitted. The Department of Natural Resources regulates groundwater pumping and prefers the reduction of pumping as a more viable long-term water management option.

Why is it not viable to just keep pumping? Is there a reason beyond, “that’s a lot of water,” or “we’d have to get the DNR’s permission?”

The park has a bunch of documents online.

Here is a FAQ from June. It has a nice, polished layout and answers the questions that a lot of people ask: could we fix the water problems by dredging the creek (no; it’s super complicated and wouldn’t make enough of a difference) or by dredging the lake (no; we could make the lake deeper, but the water level would be the same. This is really nonintuitive to people because they picture the lake as basically being a bowl, and if you make the bowl a deeper bowl, it can hold more water. Apparently lakes are not bowls, so simply making the lake deeper doesn’t solve anything; if you want to reduce the amount of water in the lake, you’d need to solve the problem upstream and that’s even more complicated.)

Here is an assessment of the pumping from July. It give a reason why pumping is bad: “From a long-term ecological perspective, a reduction of pumping is important to the MPRB. The golf course was constructed on a former wetland with organic (peat) soils that have historically settled at locations throughout the golf course. Parts of the golf course will continue to settle, and while the rate is likely less than when the golf course was originally constructed, the continued settlement of the land within the golf course area will result in the need for increased pumping into the future, especially if maintaining the area as a golf course. Continuing to pump at the current volumes presents impacts related to soil subsidence (or settling). By pumping less, the area of soil subsidence can be greatly reduced by maintaining higher groundwater levels throughout the golf course area, and the uses in the park and—ultimately the site design—can better accommodate future settlement.” In other words — I think — pumping is bad, because the golf course is sinking and although it will continue to sink whether or not we pump, it’ll sink more when we pump, requiring more pumping. That said, they’ve been pumping it since the 1930s? I think?

Here’s a table of questions with answers — questions people asked at a public meeting in July, along with short-form answers. This is actually one of the more informative documents if you can wade through some of the weirder questions. Lots of people have asked why we can’t just dump fill in the golf course to raise it; essentially, this is a bad idea because the golf course’s occasional job as emergency stormwater runoff storage location (in a really wet year, when there is A LOT of stormwater) is important, and if you make the golf course higher so it can’t store that stormwater, it will find other places to go, like people’s basements.

Finally, here’s a FAQ from early October.

In August, the Park Board voted 6-3 to reduce pumping to the minimal amount that’s required to keep water out of area basements, and let the golf course go. In early October, they voted to delay this for five years, allowing a longer discussion period of what should happen with the land (this also would make it pretty straightforward for a future Park Board to reverse the decision to get rid of the golf course.)

This is why this is such a thoroughly contentious issue in the race, which is why I felt like I needed to come up with an opinion of the issue even though see above about just how little I care about golf.

Some thoughts on this:

  1. I do not blame the golfers at all for looking at the Park Board’s statements and saying, “How about you start by seeing if the DNR will just let us continue pumping?” I mean, there really does not seem to be a compelling reason that this has to change. They discovered they were pumping more than their permit allowed, and they’d need a different permit from the DNR. Okay? So apply for that permit? The DNR is being treated like it’s the Wizard of Oz here, rather than like a regulatory agency.
  2. The most compelling reason to get rid of the golf course that I see is that it costs a lot of money to rebuild it every time it floods, and the regular flooding is absolutely inevitable. But that’s going to be true of literally anything else they do with the land, other than turning it into a wetland, because its back-up job is Getting Flooded. (This will apparently slowly get worse with the golf course, because it’s sinking. But it’s sinking like 1/4 inch per year. Couldn’t they just add some fill when they have to rebuild post-flooding? I feel like in one of those documents from the Park Board, they might have responded to this by saying that the extra fill would be heavier which would make it sink faster, but … yeah, I mean, 1/4 inch per year just doesn’t seem like so much that normal uses of the land are not viable.)
  3. How many people love golf and use this golf course? Should that be a priority for the city? I have no clear sense of this.
  4. How much pesticides do they use on that golf course? I don’t know, but Annie Young, who has spent her whole career arguing against pesticides, voted against closing the golf course.
  5. I am definitely against any plan that would put more water in people’s basements.
  6. Water management is really complicated, and there’s no one entity in charge of it. I find that kind of surprising, and I wonder how many other issues are happening at a less-public level because no one’s exactly in charge of figuring out Where the Water Goes and changes tend to be made in a piecemeal way. (There’s a document with an explanation of some of the upstream changes that may have increased water problems at Hiawatha over the years, but it doesn’t sound like they actually know which change(s) caused it, and what could be done, and what the ramifications would be of reversing some of the changes. And that seems really odd, because one thing that is not complicated is what water does.

Fundamentally, I think what I want to see in Park Board Commissioners is openness to possibilities here. Should it be a golf course? Maybe not? But in that case, give us a legitimate argument for getting rid of the golf course instead of just passing the buck to the DNR and trying to convince everyone that pumping out the water (as they have done for decades. Like the permit they were ignoring was actually issued in 1993!) is suddenly such a problem that we definitely need to dial it back as much as we possibly can immediately, even though it doesn’t affect water quality in Lake Hiawatha (because it literally is the water from Lake Hiawatha that’s just being put back in). Should it stay a golf course? Maybe? But I definitely want to see an interest in running the parks beyond the golf courses. (If your website says “SAVE THE GOLF COURSE! also picnics are cool,” you are not likely to be my pick.)

EDITED TO ADD: Fred Beukema, a Civil Engineer who called up a friend who’s an environmental scientist with background in water resource science, wrote an essay explaining the issues with the golf course that is very worth reading. Currently available here. I really appreciate the fact that he translated technical language, like he explained “10 foot x 11 foot wastewater interceptor” could also be referred to as a “poop sewer main.” If you are interested in sorting out the issues regarding the golf course, Fred’s analysis is a must-read.

Coming next: some analysis of the actual candidates.