Celebrating 50 years: The formation of the Bassett Creek Watershed Management Commission

Mon, May 13, 2019

The foundations of the Bassett Creek Watershed Management Commission began in the late 1960s, when cities in the watershed came together to work on flooding problems.

Flooding problems coincided with European settlement of the land. With hindsight being 20/20, we realize now that draining, filling and building on wetlands increases flooding because there’s no place for storm water to go. Furthermore, there was no sanitary sewer and the lower end of the creek near Minneapolis was contaminated with waste water. In an attempt to mitigate this health problem, the creek was covered with concrete creating 1.5-mile tunnel that brought the waste water directly to the Mississippi River. It took 10 years (1913-1923) to build the tunnel because construction was put on hold during the First World War.

The tunnel did its job for a few decades, but in the 1950s, nine cities started meeting to discuss the problems relating to Bassett Creek. Minneapolis was suffering from flooding and knew that as the suburban communities to the west developed, their problems would get worse. At the same time, the suburban cities had the insight to realize that they needed to plan for the places their storm water would go.

In the 1960s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers got involved in planning flood control measures and developed a plan including dikes, dams, levees and other construction. The cities found this plan aesthetically unpleasing and generally unacceptable. In 1968, the nine cities developed a joint powers agreement to cooperate in a joint effort of planning and resolving their mutual problems. This joint-powers organization was named the “Bassett Creek Flood Control Commission.”

A watershed management plan was approved in 1972 and recognized the need for major construction projects. The water from Bassett Creek was carried under the City of Minneapolis in a tunnel from approximately Dupont Avenue North to the Mississippi River. The 1.5-mile tunnel was old and in desperate need of repairs. There was concern that a major storm could cause catastrophic flood damages in residential, industrial and commercial sections of the watershed.

In 1976, the U.S. Congress approved a water resources development act that included the Bassett Creek flood control project. The program was signed by President Gerald Ford but no money was appropriated to start any new federal water projects from 1976 to 1986. President Ronald Reagan and his administration approved funding for new water projects if 35% of the project was funded by local governments. In 1986, 13 projects were authorized nationwide and Bassett Creek was one of those projects.

Even without federal funding, construction of the first phase of a new tunnel was completed in 1978 by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. This “Second Street Tunnel” section is 1 mile in length, with a 12-foot arch and was constructed in a sandstone layer up to 80 feet below Second Street in Minneapolis. It was designed to drain Interstates 394 and 94 and parts of Minneapolis and the Bassett Creek watershed.

In 1987, another piece of the project was constructed near Theodore Wirth Park and Highway 55. The structure and its installation cost approximately $230,000 (2019 dollars). Days later, the super storm of July 23, 1987, dumped 10 inches of rain in six hours (the heaviest rainfall ever officially recorded in the Twin Cities). It is estimated that this new flood control structure saved almost $1.5 million (2019 dollars) in flood damages. The project paid for itself more than five times over with the first storm.

In 1990 and 1992, the final pieces of the new tunnel were completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The “Third Avenue Tunnel” section is 0.3 miles long with a 13-foot arch and includes a 35-foot drop structure. The “Double Box Culvert” section runs from the tunnel entrance (between Van White Memorial Boulevard and Colfax Avenue) underground 1.1 miles to the Third Avenue Tunnel and includes two culverts measuring 11x11 feet.

In total, the tunnel runs 2.4 miles under the heart of Minneapolis, including under Target Field and the Warehouse District. It finally empties into the Mississippi River near the Stone Arch Bridge. The tunnel was the centerpiece of a larger $80 million (2019 dollars) flood control project.

In April 1997, a certificate of commendation was awarded to the Bassett Creek Water Management Partnership. The commendation was awarded because of the crucial partnership of multiple agencies that cooperatively planned, designed, constructed and funded the project including the watershed management commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Hennepin County and the nine member cities in the watershed.

While many things have changed in the last 50 years, one constant is the partnership of the nine member cities who continue to work together to protect and improve water resources in the watershed.

Much of this information was adapted from a letter written by former BCWMC Chairman Peter Enck to senators and representatives looking for support in building the tunnel.

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