Nonprofit wants whitewater park on north bank of Mississippi River
by Carey L. Biron
Over the past decade Minneapolis residents have again begun to turn their attention to the Mississippi, after decades of menting its banks and using it as an industrial sewer. The Mississippi River has historically served as a crucial wellspring for life in Minneapolis, but as the city’s population spread away from the river’s waters, so did their attention. Over the past decade the city has begun turning again to the river, noticing a resource that has been continually manacled and industrialized. Since the early 1990s, one small group has been advocating for a long-term cleanup of the river by restoring a small part of it to its original form.
When Father Hennepin and his entourage first came up the Mississippi River,
they were forced to begin poling their boats well below the current Lake Street
Bridge. In order to continue above the bridge’s current location, they
were forced to get out of the river completely.
Not only is St. Anthony Falls the only series of waterfalls on the length of
the Mississippi River; centuries ago, those falls were also followed by several
miles of explosive whitewater rapids. Since the Army Corps of Engineers has
over the past 120 years put in a series of three dams and covered the Falls
with an apron of cement, Father Hennepin could today paddle his boat right up
the resulting slow-moving flat water—and lift himself right up and over
the difficult parts through the Corps’ locks.
However, some people would like to see future river construction concentrate
on use not just by boats and birdges, but by people.
“This resource has for years been treated as industrial only,” sighed
St. Paul attorney George Dunn recently. Dunn is the vice president of the Mississippi
Whitewater Park Development Corporation, a nonprofit that for years has been
advocating for the creation of an urban whitewater park on the Minneapolis banks
of the Mississippi River.
“The main focus of this has been environmental and recreational,”
Dunn continued. “We think it’s important for people to understand
what kind of resource we have here.”
As it is currently proposed, the park would be situated on the north side of
the river, stretching between the Stone Arch Bridge and the 10th Avenue Bridge.
The area would include the usual park amenities—trees, grass, picnic areas—but
would also include a 40-foot wide channel of rushing whitewater rapids, landscaped
to look as natural as possible.
At the top of the channel, where the Mississippi’s waters would be initially
diverted, would be a headgate like an upside-down V, which could be raised or
lowered to create either a trickle of water (“suitable for kids to play
with stick boats,” Dunn explained) or a blasting rapids for world-class
kayaking or canoeing championships. Set somewhere in between, school kids, tourists
or interested community members could come down and shoot the rapids in rafts.
we’re talking about is getting people into the waters of the Mississippi,”
explained Dunn. “We think that would be further impetus for people to
care about the quality of the water … the idea being that if you can build
a constituency for the river, then when issues come up regarding land use development
that’s going to affect the quality of the water, the correct decisions
will be made to protect the river, rather than treating it as an open sewer
running to the Gulf of Mexico.”
Current estimates put anywhere between 50,000 and 107,000 people into the channel
every year, not counting the millions that would end up watching from the shore
or simply using the area as a traditional park—with the added asset of
a 2,000-foot whitewater rapids.
Designated as a State Recreation Area, the park would be a joint venture between
the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Minneapolis Park Board.
The project would be paid for through a mix of state and federal monies and
has received an increasing amount of bipartisan support—Senator Norm Coleman
recently made the park a central river emphasis, while similar support has come
from Congressmen Sabo, Oberstar and Ramstad. Regardless, the project’s
$25 million pricetag remains the inevitable sticking point, for critics and
Ward 2 city council member Paul Zerby supports the idea of the whitewater park,
but says he has only “tempered optimism” about the project’s
future. “You tend to measure everything by how much does it cost to put
a cop on the street,” he says. “If somebody would say that I had
to take some money from a city fund and put it into that [park] in the next
year’s budget, I don’t know that I would do it. I hate to say that,
but I’d have to look at other things.”
Zerby notes that with the city’s recent turn back towards its river, however,
focusing money on this type of development becomes both more feasible and important.
“Certainly in the past we’ve spent a lot of money on commercial
real estate that I wouldn’t have spent,” he said. “That’s
great for the people who can go there, but I think we also are getting to realize
that there are other ways that we need to use the river that are accessible
to all of us.”
With about $5 million of state and federal money currently in the bank, the
project has the funding necessary to get the proposal to an official blueprint
stage. At that time, Dunn says, a more exact pricetag will be known, and the
2006 legislative bonding session will be right around the corner.
While Dunn understands these budgetary jitters, he says that the whitewater
park proposal is an opportunity to reconnect Minneapolis to its river in a way
that would have important long-term ramifications.
“Right now, the river doesn’t have a strong enough constituency,”
he emphasized. “We’re talking about putting 100,000 people into
the river for recreational purposes. When you do that, you create a bond between
the individual and the natural resource that can be more dynamic than just walking
alongside the river.”
For more information, check out WhiteWaterPark.Canoe-Kayak.org.