Published Media ::::
Citizens cut out of development planning

Published November 2003
Southside Pride

by Susu Jeffrey

Watershed districts will be making decisions about road building and residential and commercial development with no direct accountability to the people whose lives and land are forever changed.

The Minnesota state Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) is writing new rules that do not allow citizens to appeal a decision made by regional watershed districts. "A public transportation authority may appeal a permit decision," according to BWSR’s October 14 draft of rules. Citizens may appeal a "rule" but not a "decision."

So, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) can simply write to BWSR to appeal a watershed decision. A citizen or group unhappy with a watershed decision has the “right” to go to court. How can citizens be expected to do more than the richest, most powerful agency in the state that gets unlimited, free legal services from taxpayers through the office of the Attorney General?

The new rule is a classic Catch-22. To oppose the state’s Attorney General team for MnDOT requires multiple thousands of dollars. Local courts are experiencing a financial crunch and have increased the fees for entering the system. With the planned layoff of court support personnel, the courts are less likely to even hear a case.

Resistance to the Highway 55 reroute through Minnehaha Park and through part of the underground flow to Historic Coldwater Spring is an example of how expensive and time-consuming government “efficiency” can be.


Minnehaha Park was the first state park in the United States (1878), the second was Niagara Falls. Following the 1855 publication of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, the falls, with its 53-foot drop, became a hugely popular tourist destination.

Coldwater is a 10,000-year-old spring that flowed at a pre-construction rate of 100,000-144,000 gallons a day. In addition to being a living geological museum, Coldwater was a traditional gathering place for Native American tribes of the upper Mississippi that used spring water for specific ceremonies requiring sacred water in a sacred landscape. The powerful Dakota god of waters and the underworld is said to dwell at Coldwater Spring. Coldwater is also the birthplace of Minnesota, where the soldiers lived who built Fort Snelling and site of the pioneer settlement whose citizens founded St. Paul and Minneapolis. Coldwater furnished water to Fort Snelling for 100 years.

Minnehaha Falls is about a mile north of Coldwater Spring. Both are on the Mississippi River bluff that forms the only true river gorge on the entire 2,350-mile length of the Mississippi. The gorge runs 9 miles from the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers to the cataract now called the Falls of St. Anthony.

In the early 1960s, MnDOT planned an eight-lane freeway in the Highway 55/Hiawatha corridor and began condemnation proceedings against businesses and homes in a wide swath. Whole blocks were razed but citizen resistance to a spacious freeway design through long-established neighborhoods held construction away for more than 30 years. Attorney and former gubernatorial candidate Mike Freeman was on a citizen's committee in 1985 that recommended a four-lane roadway, located in the same alignment as the old route. That committee was replaced by a more compliant committee.

MnDOT acquiesced to a four-lane highway but routed it through parkland with a mass transit option in the old highway alignment from 52nd Street south along Minnehaha Avenue to Highway 62. In the early 1990s the area’s first light rail transit (LRT) line, originally scheduled for the 35W corridor, was shifted to the Hiawatha corridor.


In 1996 Park and River Alliance sued MnDOT, the city of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Park Board in federal court. The case was not decided on its merits because the Alliance had exceeded the time limit for an appeal, although construction adjacent to the park had not started.

In 1998 the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community along with several individuals sued in state and federal courts for Native American cultural properties studies, burial site investigations, and violation of state and federal environmental laws. The two-year suit against state and federal transportation departments, the federal Department of the Interior and state archaeologists resulted in mediation, archaeological digs near “the Four Oaks” and two days of testimony by native elders from various tribes.

“We know that the falls which came to be known as Minnehaha Falls,” said Eddie Benton Benais, grand chief of the Mdewiwin Society (Medicine Lodge) from northern Wisconsin, “was a sacred place, was a neutral place, a place for many nations to come….There’s a spring near the lodge that all nations used to draw the sacred water for the ceremony….My grandfather who lived to be 108, died in 1942 … many times he retold how we traveled, how he and his family, he as a small boy traveled by foot, by horseback, by canoe, to where there would be these great religious, spiritual events. And that they always camped between the falls and the sacred water place.”

In one federal court appearance in 1999, a MnDOT tree expert testified that “the Four Oaks,” four indigenous burr oaks growing in a diamond pattern facing the cardinal directions and considered a sacred site, were not old enough to be “marker trees” signifying a sacred landscape. MnDOT’s Dan Gullickson told the court the oaks were only 137 years old (1999 minus 137 equals 1862).

1862, the year MnDOT claimed the Four Oaks were planted, was the year of the Dakota Uprising. Denied food and financial allotments, some starving Dakota warriors warred against white settlers living on their former subsistance hunting grounds. Estimates of white deaths range from 600 to 1,000; native deaths were not recorded. In an orgy of collective punishment, 38 Dakota men were hanged in Mankato the day after Christmas in the largest mass hanging in U.S. history.

Hundreds of Dakota people, including women, children and elders, were imprisoned over a brutal winter on the Minnesota River flats below Fort Snelling. About 1,300 of those who survived were shipped out to Nebraska in an overcrowded riverboat comparable to the “middle passage” of captured Africans sent to the New World. Native elders theorize that the Four Oaks were placed as a sign to future generations of sacred land. The context of the 1862 “marker tree” planting was never permitted in the case.

The archaeological firm MnDOT hired found “nothing significant” in their shallow 2-foot-deep excavations. The findings of a later Coldwater Springs study by state archeologist Robert Clouse were never made public. Through mediation, MnDOT compromised on protecting the flow to Coldwater Spring by elevating two sections of the 55 reroute at 50th and 54th Streets.

In 2001, Friends of Coldwater sued in county court to be included in the watershed versus MnDOT case as an intervener. At issue was the interchange at highways 55/62, which cuts into the underground flow of water to historic Coldwater Spring.

The 55/62 intersection is designed to be 35 feet below the former land surface to accommodate height restrictions for the north/south runway extension at Minneapolis/St. Paul airport. Coldwater is in the flight safety zone mandated by the Federal Aviation Authority. The runway extension idea floundered in 1998 after Northwest Airlines cancelled its planned nonstop flight to Hong Kong that required a longer runway only on very hot, humid summer days. The 4/22 runway is used just 3 percent of the time.

The runway extension was "indefinitely postponed" after 9/11. Since the financial airline crash following 9/11, Northwest Airlines is ordering smaller planes for direct flights, moving away from the "hub system." Why was it never “too late” to reconsider the now-unnecessary runway extension?

MnDOT’s 1985 Environmental Assessment for the Highway 55 reroute did not mention Coldwater Springs. The airport’s 1999 Environmental Assessment declared the proposed runway extension would “not have an effect on the integrity of the historic features of the Camp Coldwater Spring/Reservoir.”

Watershed geohydrologists measured a 30 percent decline in flow to Coldwater as construction began.

The court refused intervener status to the Friends of Coldwater on grounds that the watershed speaks for the citizens! If the BWSR rules go into effect the precedent of claiming that the watershed is the same as "the people" means "the people" have no recourse to watershed decisions.

Citizens opposed to the 55 reroute were forced to take extreme actions to try to protect Minnehaha Park and Coldwater Spring. Millions of dollars in police hours were wasted, history was ignored, people and cultures were disrespected, the state transportation agency was caught spying illegally on protesters, and finally the project was halted for minimal redesign.


Remember the Great Medicine Spring in Theodore Wirth Park? In 1874, Col. John H. Stevens, considered the first white settler in Minneapolis, said the spring was frequented by American Indian people "who came hundreds of miles to get the benefit of its medicinal qualities." The Great Medicine Spring, along with Glenwood Spring, was destroyed by permanent dewatering of I-394, which pulls about 2.5 million gallons of water daily from the area.

After 10 years in which the Great Medicine Spring was expected to recharge, the Minneapolis Park Board drilled down 150 feet and found an iron-rich (undrinkable) dribble from perched underground water. Glenwood still sells "spring" water; by law they can label well water as spring water if a spring used to be there. The MnDOT senior geologist who designed the I-394 dewatering system said he did not know about the Great Medicine Spring during a deposition taken for the Coldwater case. The quote was: "What spring?"

And remember Boiling Springs in Savage near Eagle Creek, a calcareous fen that used to be called "the 8th Wonder of the Natural World." People were told new commercial and residential development would make the spring more accessible. Today there is a path but no geyser spews water anymore. A troubling aspect, difficult to bring up much less discuss, is the fact that Coldwater Spring, the Great Medicine Spring and Boiling Spring are/were Native American sacred sites.

Citizens should have every opportunity to protect our water—springs, considered to be sacred sites by Native Americans, our wetlands, creeks and lakes. After all, water is recognized internationally as a human right.

No more water will be added to earth unless an ice meteor survives a plunge through the atmosphere. We are drinking the same water the dinosaurs drank and we all drink downstream. In the case of the Twin Cities, we drink downstream of creeks with cabins with outhouses or septic tanks, and towns and cities with and without sewage treatment, and downstream of Monticello nuclear power plant. Short-term financial decisions can be false economy—economy that costs more in the end and usually includes human health and emotional “costs.”


The model of excluding citizens from an appeal process is probably attractive to many government agencies—immigration has been in the news lately for lack of “due process.” Like water, government abuse can leak into the chinks and cracks of the whole construction.

Getting rid of that pesky, time-consuming back and forth human process appears to be more efficient but it has to be enforced; it is a system that turns “protesters” into “terrorists.” Government rule by agency professionals, by appointment beyond the reach of the electorate, is not even pretend democracy.

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