Flooding strains sewage system, beaches closed

Flooding along Minnehaha Creek
Bike riders tackle a flooded path along Minnehaha Creek in Minneapolis on Sunday, June 1, 2014. The creek burst its banks in numerous locations after torrential rain.
Hart Van Denburg/MPR News

People who live next to Minnehaha Creek watched the water near their homes nervously on Monday as more rain threatened to flood homes along the waterway.

"I kept looking all night at the creek and watching it rise, and we're within an inch and a half of the basement floor," Bruce Nemer said.

Photos: Torrential rain floods Lake Minnetonka
More: Sewage warning on Lake Minnetonka

Nemer, who lives along the creek in St. Louis Park, said this just the third time in more than 40 years that he's seen the water come up so high in his yard.

Flooded Grays Bay
A car made its way through a flooded Grays Bay Blvd. on Lake Minnetonka Monday, June 2, 2014.
Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News

The St. Louis Park Fire Department has been helping put up sandbag dikes in the area to help protect some homes.

Significant amounts of water came into John Iacono's basement.

Iacono, 77, lives about 30 feet from Minnehaha Creek, in St. Louis Park. He said he's lived there 40 years and never seen the water level so high. He has a perimeter drainage system around his house but is still pumping about 80 gallons a minute from his basement.

Still, he's philosophical about it.

"The way I look at it is, if you wanna live 30 feet from the water, and enjoy the beautiful view 24/7, year round, you gotta put up with some water once in a while," Iacono said.

Farther downstream, in Minneapolis, the creek broke its banks in numerous places, submerging nearby meadows, bike and foot paths.

The National Weather service says nearly 5 inches of rain fell in some areas around Lake Minnetonka by Sunday morning.

The Minnehaha Creek Watershed district says the lake, which feeds Minnehaha Creek, is at the highest level since the agency started keeping records in 1906. The level is continuing to rise as runoff reaches the lake.

Dry weather Tuesday is expected to help ease the flooding. Minnehaha Creek levels seem to be ebbing now, said Telly Mamayek, spokeswoman for the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is advising people to avoid swimming or skiing in Lake Minnetonka and two other nearby lakes, after heavy rains forced the city of Mound to release untreated sewage into the storm water sewer system Sunday morning.

The MPCA gave Mound permission to release the sewage in order to keep waste water from backing up into the basements of around 1,000 homes in the city. There were between 20 and 30 such releases across the state this weekend, according to Wendy Turri, municipal waste water manager for the MPCA.

State health officials posted signs at public beaches around Lake Minnetonka announcing the beaches are closed until further notice. But there are no signs posted in Mound at a marina near the shore of Lost Lake, largely a channel that flows into Lake Minnetonka.

Mounds resident Cassie Ricke was not pleased Allie, her golden retriever, would smell like a swamp after going for a dip. However, Ricke is not worried her pooch will get sick from possible sewage in the water.

"Because we live on the lake she takes a shot to make sure she doesn't get those bacterias and things," she said.

Ricke said she's glad the city took action that could have prevented a backflow of sewage into her basement.

City officials say without the release of untreated water, the sewage would have no place else to go but backward. Ricke said Lake Minnetonka is so large, the contaminants will be diluted. Besides, she said, there's not much to do on the lake right now.

"At this point Lake Minnetonka is on a wake restriction anyway," Ricke said. "We have a boat and we haven't even put it in yet, because if our kids can't ski and tube, then what's the point?"

Under the wake restrictions, boats in some areas of the lake are banned from traveling at over five miles an hour because of record high lake levels. Lake Minnetonka Conservation District officials says the combination of high water and waves generated by boats damage the shoreline.

Yet others walking near the lake say they're worried about the health risks posed by the release of sewage into the lake system. Mound resident Judy Matter said that from now on, her rat Terrier, named Pup, is not allowed in the lake. She said the city needs to find a better way to prepare for heavy rains.

"This can't go on, like, year after year after year," Matter said. "What about families that want to go swimming with their children and stuff?"

Mound City Manager Kandis Hanson said the weekend rains fell so hard and so fast that the sewer system was overwhelmed. She hasn't seen that happen before in her 20 years with the city.

"It was extraordinary circumstances that required extraordinary action," she said.

Hennepin County has closed two Lake Minnetonka beaches in Cooks Bay. Another beach, on Dutch Lake, has also been closed to swimming.

Officials in communities near Lake Minnetonka also are warning people not to swim in the lake because of possible E. coli contamination. However, the warning does not appear to be affecting businesses in the area.

Restaurant managers in Spring Park and Excelsior say they're as busy as ever, despite the bacteria warning.

Scott Slater, of Shorewood was preparing his boat at the Wayzata Yacht Club Monday.

Slater, 49, said he plans to sail this week, but won't go into the water or let his children swim until it's found to be safe.

"I think I'll stay out of the water for awhile, especially with how high the lake is," he said. "I'm sure there's not only sewage but other things in the water."

MPCA officials say waste water bypasses caused by heavy rains are not unusual. Agency spokesman Sam Brungardt said Mound was not the only community with storm water problems this weekend.

"When we have widespread rains like we did [Sunday], we might have, I don't know - 20 or 30 places - waste water systems around the state that have asked us for permission to bypass," he said.

Brungardt said the solution could be building larger waste water pipes and treatment facilities.

However, that is a very expensive fix, said Tim O'Donnell, of the Metropolitan Council's Environmental Services department. O'Donnell said engineers don't think it's practical to build the sewers to handle massive storms.

"To add that type of capacity, to handle the extreme rainfall that mixes in with the waste water, would be upwards of a billion dollars regionwide," he said.

A more cost-effective alternative, O'Donnell said, would be to make smaller scale improvements that specifically target areas where storm water is getting into the sewers.

MPR News reporters Liala Helal and Matt Sepic contributed to this report.

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