As a candidate for park board, one of the top questions I'm hearing from voters is; what is my stance on the future of the Hiawatha Golf Course? In order to be clear for voters I'd like to lay out my stance and open a discussion and dialogue on the issue.
Lake Hiawatha is one of the greatest natural treasures in Minneapolis. Lake Hiawatha and the land around it are critical habitat for waterfowl, fish, and migrating birds.
Thousands of of people use the lake and park space at Hiawatha for recreation, year round.
Lake Hiawatha, formerly known as Rice Lake was dredged in the 1930’s and the dredgings were dumped into the large wetland adjacent to the lake. This new arrangement of the lake was then named Lake Hiawatha.
Hiawatha Golf Course
Flooding at Hiawatha Golf Course in 2014
Situated adjacent to Lake Hiawatha is the Hiawatha Golf Course. Four intersecting bodies of water come together in this area; Lake Hiawatha, Minnehaha Creek, a large area of storm sewer that empties into Lake Hiawatha, and underneath the lake and golf course is the massive Prairie Du Chien Aquifer.
These intersecting bodies of water and the low elevation mean that the space where the golf course was built is actually a floodplain.
The rice-growing portion of the lake (original namesake) was at one time a food producing wetland and habitat. This habitat was drained and filled in to create the space where the Hiawatha Golf Course sits today.
Pumping Station at Hiawatha Golf Course
In order to keep the golf course above water the Minneapolis Park Board is pumping more than 240 million gallons of water every year out of the golf course and into Lake Hiawatha. This groundwater pumping exceeds state groundwater pumping limits permitted by the MN DNR.
Annually the Hiawatha Golf Course sinks about 1/4 of an inch as soil subsidence exacerbated by groundwater pumping dissolves and eats away at the land that forms the golf course.
Due to being situated in a floodplain the Hiawatha Golf Course has flooded several times throughout its history. Most recently, in 2014, the course flooded which led to it being partially closed for two years. Every time the golf course floods the MPRB spends huge sums of tax dollars to re-make it.
Further exacerbating flooding issues is the fact that Hiawatha Golf Course is actually lower in elevation than Lake Hiawatha and the golf course is getting lower every year.
Street / Sewer System
The street / storm sewer system that drains into Lake Hiawatha acts as a vast dry creek bed that rushes rainwater and run-off into Lake Hiawatha every time it rains.
An area of land that is bordered by Chicago Ave on the east side, 28th Ave on the west side, and Lake Street on the north side all drains into Lake Hiawatha with no mitigation or pollution traps.
The “north pipe” that carries the street sewer runoff into Lake Hiawatha runs directly underneath the golf course on the north side of the lake.
I joined with the Friends of Lake Hiawatha on a couple of pollution cleanup days around the lake.
During the pollution cleanup I personally found diapers, hundreds of cigarette butts, syringes, condoms, and all manner of personal hygiene products in the water.
These macro-pollutants are one part of the pollution problem at Lake Hiawatha.
Phosphorus and Other Pollutants
Another part of the problem is micro-pollutants such as phosphorus from fertilizers and road salt. The state of MN sets limits on how much phosphorus can be present in lakes, and Lake Hiawatha regularly exceeds the limit. In fact, Lake Hiawatha has the highest level of phosphorus of any Minneapolis lake.
Looking at all of these issues, one might conclude that the simple answer is to close Hiawatha Golf Course, restore the wetland, and find other uses for the remaining dry land. This is however not only a simple story of environmental injustice, the story of Lake Hiawatha also has important racial justice components. The golf course not only brings up environmental issues but also equity and historical significance issues as well.
African American golfers were historically not allowed by the racist white power structure to play at most American golf courses. Hiawatha Golf Course however was historically a space where African American people were allowed to play golf.
MPRB utilized Native American imagery to promote Hiawatha Golf Course
More recently Hiawatha Golf Course has also been home to student golfing programs that encourage students from local schools to learn and play golf.
In addition to it’s history as a golf course welcoming to African American people, prior to the creation of the golf course this space was a food source for Native American people where wild rice and fish could be harvested.
This space is under the jurisdiction of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, a board that for most if its history has been focused on serving the interests of wealthier white people to the exclusion of people of color and low income residents.
There are many intersecting racial, economic, social, and environmental issues at play and none of these is simple or easy.
Here are my bottom lines:
1. Dry Houses: The houses that are being kept dry due to pumping must be kept dry. If we slow down the pumping we can only slow it down to the point of still ensuring that houses and the basements under them are kept dry. The current plan recently adopted by the MPRB would slow down pumping to 94 million gallons per year. This continuing pumping will ensure that basements in this floodplain stay dry. Since these houses are in a floodplain, over time it would be wise for the MPRB to purchase the houses at fair market rates in order to remove them from the housing inventory.
2. Clean Water: The water flowing into Lake Hiawatha must be cleaned via mitigation channels and pollution traps. This means that at a minimum the golf course will need to be rearranged.
The space for creating the mitigation channels and pollution traps is currently a golf course fairway. Without mitigation we will continue dumping pollution in the form of garbage and hazardous chemicals into the lake from the “north pipe” connected to the street sewer every time it rains.
Once we create a mitigation channel and pollution traps we must work to remove the toxins and trash that shouldn’t be in our lake.
3. Recognition of Historical Significance: Whether the golf course ultimately stays in a modified form or goes altogether we need to publicly and permanently recognize the historical significance of the Hiawatha Golf Course as a place welcoming to all people.
4. Expanded Habitat: As a stop off zone for migrating birds and a home to fish, reptiles, pollinators, and mammals the habitat area around Lake Hiawatha needs to be expanded. If golf is going to be present still at Hiawatha the course will need to incorporate much more habitat than the current design allows for.
5. Eliminate Pesticide Use: According to the MPRB’s own documentation Hiawatha Golf Course is one of the biggest users of pesticides in our park system.
Whether the golf course stays or goes, the use of herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides in a floodplain adjacent to a lake and a creek is highly irresponsible. These toxins also put the amazing park staff in harms way by exposing them to carcinogenic chemicals.
If the golf course can’t be managed without pesticides then it has no place near the intersecting bodies of water at Hiawatha, because we have no business continuing to put employees, park visitors, and wildlife in harms way.
6. Expanded Recreation: Lake Hiawatha has a path around less than half of the lake. Thousands of neighboring residents would like to utilize the land at Hiawatha but don’t play golf. We need to offer more than one type of recreation opportunity at Lake Hiawatha.
Some neighbors are working for a Food Forest to be developed in a portion of the remaining dry land after the pumps are turned down. This idea has the potential to create a native habitat for pollinators, birds, wildlife, and people to enjoy.
7. Equitable Recreation: In the Minneapolis park system, we have to provide recreation opportunities for all Minneapolis residents. While it may be appropriate to maintain some golf courses within our park system, currently we maintain 7 golf courses including Meadowbrook, Gross, Fort Snelling, Columbia, 2 at Theodore Wirth, and Hiawatha.
Hiawatha Golf Course is 140 acres. I’d like to see an equity analysis by size of land used and type of sport played so that we can get a sense of how many square feet of our parkland is dedicated to each sport and how many square feet of parkland an average soccer or basketball player gets to utilize compared to an average golfer.
Future of Lake Hiawatha and Hiawatha Golf Course
The MPRB recently voted to reduce pumping which would fill much of the golf course back in with water, recreate the missing wetland, and eliminate golf at Hiawatha. The next board of commissioners will likely revisit this decision.
I am learning and listening in relation to the issues at Lake Hiawatha and throughout our park system. Your feedback and input is important and welcome! I’d love to answer any questions and do any research that is helpful to the community while together we work out what might be done with this important space. The future of Lake Hiawatha and the surrounding land is in the hands of the people of Minneapolis.