It’s been seven years since the conversation about the future of the Lake Hiawatha Golf Course started.
And neighborhood residents are still waiting for something to be done about the trash.
It enters the lake through a stormwater pipe on the northwest side that flows under the golf course, draining a large part of the city south of E. Lake St.
Standish resident and University of Minnesota professor Sean Connaughty has been picking up trash at the lake most days while he walks his dog. But he and others are getting tired of doing the same thing without a larger solution being implemented.
What to do about the trash has been wrapped up into the larger question of what to do about the Hiawatha Golf Course itself, which has been debated since the course experienced significant flooding in 2014 that revealed only regular pumping is keeping the course dry enough to play on. The issue was studied by a community advisory group for about three years, and sparked considerable debate in the community. A master plan to turn the golf course from an 18-hole to 9-hole course failed to garner enough votes by the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board (MPRB) of Commissioners in July 2021, leaving the issue unresolved.
Connaughty is part of the Friends of Lake Hiawatha (FOLH), which formed in part due to his activism around the trash in the lake, and the annual art shows held showcasing the trash removed from the lake.
Connaughty said, “We have long asked the city and MPRB to prioritize the implementation of comprehensive stormwater treatment for the north pipe that empties 920 acres of South Minneapolis without filtration directly into Lake Hiawatha,” stated Connaughty. “We also warned from the beginning that tying comprehensive stormwater treatment into the fate of Hiawatha Golf Course would result in delays due to the divisive nature of the topic.
“This turned out to be true.”
Most polluted lake in state
Connaughty was one of the community members who served on the community advisory group. He observed, “The MPRB has explained that the decision on groundwater pumping and the finalization of the master plan would need to be resolved before stormwater treatment could be implemented. This is because the hydrology of the site will determine how stormwater treatment is laid out. Before you start you have to know where the water table will be at, and that is tied into decisions around pumping.
“We have long asked the city to install a temporary trash capture device at the end of the pipe until comprehensive stormwater treatment can be implemented. They continue to say this is not feasible.
“But we believe that with recent advancements in trash capture technologies it is entirely feasible to come up with a device that could work.
“Unfortunately, the pollution coming into Lake Hiawatha via the north pipe includes not only tons of trash, it also includes sediment, phosphorus (570 pounds annually) and myriad other pollutants, (chlorides, pesticides, nutrients, bacteria). Lake Hiawatha is listed by the MPCA as impaired for phosphorus and bacteria. A stormwater treatment plan needs not only trash-capture technology, it needs the comprehensive approach laid out in the Hiawatha Golf Course Area master plan, which will address and reduce all of the aforementioned pollutants.”
Community members on both sides of the golf course debate can agree that the pollution in the lake needs to be managed. Those pushing for changes have been doing so for seven years already, and they’re worried about what another seven years will do to the lake and the species that depend on it.
“This is terribly disheartening to those of us who are cleaning up tons of trash at Lake Hiawatha and those in the community who are tired of seeing the lake trashed,” said Connaughty. “If it takes seven years, we can expect another 11,200 pounds of trash to accumulate in the lake.
“There is a concerning lack of urgency here.
“We feel that creative and competent people can collaborate to move this process forward much more quickly given the urgency of the ecological conditions.”
Over the past six years, residents have removed an average of 101,360 pieces of trash by hand each year.
At the 2021 Earth Day Clean-up, 100 volunteers removed 400 pounds of plastic and styrofoam trash from Lake Hiawatha – a weight record from the clean-ups.
In mid-August, volunteers removed the 448th bag of trash from Lake Hiawatha for a total of 8,960 pounds of trash.
“But currently trash still chokes the shore. And lots of clean-up is again needed,” said Connaughty.
In a complaint filed with the MPCA, FOLH wrote, “We believe that Lake Hiawatha is the most trash polluted lake in the state of Minnesota.”
“Seven years of extensive engagement and community input has unfortunately resulted in no change for Lake Hiawatha,” wrote Connaughty in a public letter to local residents and leaders.
“The time has come to press for oversight and accountability given the lack of any plan to address the egregious pollution of Lake Hiawatha via the 43rd Street pipe. The MPCA has the authority to require stormwater treatment. The city was ready to move forward with comprehensive stormwater treatment and was waiting for MPRB to finalize its plans. We know the city works on upstream solutions, but we have not seen improvement at Lake Hiawatha. It is clear that the scale and nature of this subwatershed requires an end of pipe solution.
“The MPRB failed in its obligation to address the pollution of Lake Hiawatha and downstream waters.”
Pushing for statewide standards, changing things at lake
FOLH members have done a number of things over the years, including submitting comments on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s triennial standards review. The group asked that trash and plastics be added to the pollutants of concern. They also pushed for developing a water quality standard for trash and plastics and establishing a TMDL, an enforcement mechanism, for lakes and waters that are impaired for trash. They’re also working with the city, and have submitted comments to the annual review of the city’s stormwater management program (SWMP). They want the city to add trash and plastics to the pollutants addressed in the SWMP.
They have applied for a permit with the DNR and MPRB to plant native species below the ordinary high water level in the Hiawatha Delta Area. FOLH continue to work on managing invasive species.
At their request, MPRB has agreed to back off mowing in selected areas on the south shore of Lake Hiawatha and along Minnehaha Creek to improve wildlife connectivity and to restore some wildlife connectivity along the Minnehaha Creek corridor.
According to the 2020 Stewardship Report biodiversity survey, there are at least 250 species of animals observed at Lake Hiawatha, including Blanding’s turtle, spiny soft shelled turtle, nesting Great Horned Owls, and North American river otters. It is a key stop for migrating birds along the Mississippi River Flyway. The lake is also a hub for recreation in the community, and a place where people swim, fish, kayak and more.