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Camp Coldwater Spring / Challenge to MnDOT has merit

Published June 15, 2001 - Minneapolis Star Tribune

It's easy to understand the Minnesota Department of Transportation's resistance to more scrutiny of its Hwy. 55 project, this time to determine the probable impacts on Camp Coldwater Spring. Debate over this roadway has been unusually harsh, and some of the objections have carried more weight than others.

But the merits of this challenge are beyond question. The spring is a significant resource and an official historic site, figuring in the first European settlement of the area and holding a sacred place in Native American culture for generations before that. The Minnehaha Creek Watershed District is a legitimate public body with a record of responsible service, and its concerns here are plausible.

Last year, long after the highway work was underway, Camp Coldwater Spring was placed within the watershed district's boundaries and, therefore, within its mission to protect water resources. As its consultants began to study the area, they grew concerned about plans for the Hwy. 55 interchange with Crosstown Hwy. 62. Excavations to keep water away from the footings would lower the water table by as much as 15 feet, they warned, and this might reduce the flow of groundwater that feeds the nearby spring.

MnDOT disagrees. Testing shows that underground slopes near the interchange carry water away from the spring, it says, and the spring's flow has not been diminished by groundwater removal during construction. Besides, MnDOT pledges, if the completed project is shown to have significantly damaged the spring, it will rebuild to correct the problem.

Measurements by the watershed district, however, show some reductions in spring flow already, and a dye-transfer test indicated that underground fissures may carry some water from the interchange area to the spring. So it proposed a more conclusive test, in which dye would be injected into the ground nearer the interchange.

That test is now proceeding, but only by court order. After agreeing to permit it, though not to be influenced by the results, MnDOT raised obstacles that delayed the testing and finally prompted the watershed district to sue. The district won, partly because of a brand-new state law written to protect the spring -- a law MnDOT is now lobbying to loosen.

In MnDOT's behalf, it must be said that its engineers are correct in claiming that no testing can conclusively settle this question in advance. On the other hand, it is clear that MnDOT has chosen to fight the watershed district where it might have found a compromise.

In court, MnDOT exaggerated the testing's impact on construction timetables and costs, including a swiftly retracted assertion that light-rail work might be delayed for a year. It continues to blame the watershed district for delays that are partly its own fault. And having promised to mitigate any damage it does to the spring, MnDOT is trying to modify the law to ease its obligations.

It is not too late for MnDOT to redeem its performance in this battle, probably the last big one it will have to fight over Hwy. 55. As the testing proceeds, and as its implications are assessed, MnDOT ought to adopt a more cooperative stance on preserving Camp Coldwater Spring -- a duty that challenges not only its engineering, but its citizenship.

© 2001 Star Tribune
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