Sen. Julie Sabo, DFL-Minneapolis, is urging both sides of a disputed highway project to come to a compromise to save the Camp Coldwater Spring near the intersection of highways 55 and 62. Sabo is the author of legislation passed last session protecting the spring. But the law has halted construction of a $16 million interchange.
Defenders of the Camp Coldwater spring say its an important part of the state's heritage. The spring's water sustained U.S. troops who build Fort Snelling in the early 1800s. And Native American elders from tribes in Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin have testified to its cultural and religious significance.
Today, few people have seen it; it's hidden on the abandoned campus of the Federal Bureau of Mines at the south edge of Minneapolis, but some 50,000 motorists a day drive past the partly-completed interchange of Highways 55 and 62 just a few hundred yards away.
Last fall, MnDOT announced it was abandoning work on the interchange because it could not comply with the law protecting the Coldwater Spring.
Now, some of the spring's defenders worry that MnDOT will try to gut the law this legislative session in order to build the interchange regardless of the effect on the spring.
On Tuesday DFLer Julie Sabo, the Senate author of the legislation, stood by the spring and argued that allowing it to be drained by a highway project would be just one part of a bigger picture: the steady erosion of the state's natural resources caused by one small loss after another.
"At some point, we need to start taking those changes into account, not in their little fragmented pieces, but as a whole for this state. And I think that's what's significant about this spring and saving it. It's symbolic of our past and our future," Sabo said.
Representatives of the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District have gone to court to protect the spring.
Kelton Barr, the district's consulting hydrologist, says tests and monitoring over the past two years show that the interchange as planned would drain the springs flow by a third or more.
"More and more the pieces are piling up, the pieces of data. And we are more and more convinced there is going to be a substantial impact," according to Barr.
Representatives of the watershed district say they want MnDOT to come up with an alternative design that will preserve the flow. They say one possibility is a concrete shield around the roadbed.
MnDOT officials say that could cost as much as $8 million and is far too expensive. MnDOT Metro Division Engineer Bob Winter says the agency is committed to finding a different design that will satisfy the watershed district along with other agencies that have expressed concern for the spring. That includes the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Federal Highway Administration.
But Winter says MnDOT also wants the law protecting the spring to be modified. He says as it's written now, it allows for absolutely no impact on the spring.
"We need something... that's obviously going to have to get hammered out in the legislative process if, in fact, it gets there, but something that makes it not quite so absolute, that leave the opportunity for some minor impact. But absolutely no impact is an unreasonable standard that we can't live with," Winter said.
Winter says the agency hopes to work out a design acceptable to the watershed district and other agencies, then go to the Legislature to get the law changed so the project can go ahead. He says the agency's goal is to resume construction next summer.
Sen. Sabo says MnDOT has assured her it will not try to have the law repealed. She's willing to consider changes, but she says she hopes MnDOT preserves the spirit of the law.