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Water dispute puts Minneapolis golf course in jeopardy

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Hiawatha Golf Club
Golfers play through Minneapolis' Hiawatha Golf Club Tuesday.
Curtis Gilbert | MPR News

The Minneapolis Park Board has been pumping large volumes of water from the ground underneath the city's Hiawatha Golf Club. And now, the future of the popular public course is in jeopardy.

Park Board officials revealed Tuesday night that the pumps have dumped hundreds of millions of gallons a year into nearby Lake Hiawatha. But it's possible they have also been breaking the law.

The hundreds of golfers and neighbors who turned out to a community meeting Tuesday thought they were getting an update on the options for reopening the back nine of the course, which has been closed since last June's historic floods. The storms took out 23 trees and killed off 47 acres of grass. The Federal Emergency Management Agency pledged more than a million dollars to fix up the course.

Instead, to a roomful of "boos," Park Board Commissioner Steffanie Musich explained that those plans are now on hold.

"Until further analysis is done, a revised timeline is not available for this project, and the future park and rec uses of this site are unknown," Musich told the crowd. "I can assure you this land will remain parkland, even if golf is no longer a viable use of this space."

Golf faces an uncertain future at Hiawatha because of water problems that began long before last year's floods.

Back in 1990s, the course, which is part of Nokomis-Hiawatha Regional Park, was often too wet. So the park board installed pumps — much bigger versions of the sump pumps many people have in their basements.

Just days ago, park officials learned those pumps were moving much more water than they'd thought. A consultant determined the pumps were dumping groundwater into Lake Hiawatha at a rate of about 1 cubic foot per second. Assistant Park Superintendent Michael Schroeder said that might not sound like a lot, but he explained it adds up to more than a quarter-billion gallons a year.

"If we were to take the entirety of Nokomis-Hiawatha Regional Park, which is 640 acres, and apply that amount of water in one year, it's 15 or 16 inches deep over not just the golf course, but over the entire regional park," he said.

It's also seven times the amount of water the course is allowed to pump under its irrigation permit from the state Department of Natural Resources.

Depositing ground water into a lake can disrupt its ecosystem by adding nutrients that feed algae.

"I need to be good steward of the land and the water in our keeping," Musich, the commissioner said. She said she doesn't want the park board to damage one of its own lakes. "We need to be sure that ... we're not causing further harm."

The Hiawatha course sits about two feet below the level of Lake Hiawatha. It's unclear what would happen if the pumps had to be turned off.

"I think it would be a huge loss to the city, absolutely huge loss," said Andrea Fahrenkrug, who uses the course occasionally. She said she was blindsided by the announcement, and doesn't want to see the course close. "Golf is something you can carry forward your entire life. Both men and women can do it, girls and boys. It doesn't separate them."

Most of the other people in the audience Tuesday night agreed — and park board officials said it's still their goal to keep the course intact. But resident Ryan Seibold thinks that would be a mistake. He equates it to building a home in a floodplain.

"Let's say it's not a golf course, but it's a place where you put your house, and it got washed away. Would you build your house there again? I wouldn't," he said.

The park board plans to meet with state officials soon to get a better understanding of how its pumps are affecting the environment. It will plan another round of public meetings once it knows its options.

The park board was recently on the other side of a water dispute. Along with the city, it successfully sued a real estate developer last year for illegally pumping groundwater from underneath a luxury apartment building into Lake Calhoun.