VOICES: Copper thieves at Coldwater


The abandoned Bureau of Mines buildings around Coldwater Spring have been a magnet for gang graffiti, homeless people seeking shelter, and after-hours adventurism since 1995. Homeless people get ushered out, unleashed dog walkers get tickets. So go the priorities at Hennepin County’s last natural spring, a mile south of Minnehaha Falls.

Since 1805 when Lt. Zebulon Pike signed a treaty for a fort on the Mississippi, Coldwater has been “federal.” Good thing, because our state allowed the powerful Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to carve up Fort Snelling’s river bluff with roads and freeways and the airport.

Of course the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, the “meeting of waters,” would traditionally be a place for the meeting of peoples—but the Mississippi is also the drinking water source for 18-million Americans.

MnDOT still plans to expand Highway 55 into a freeway from Interstate 94 south to the 62 Crosstown, further threatening the spring outflow. The other sacred spring in Hennepin County, the Great Medicine Spring (Theodore Wirth Park), was permanently dewatered with construction of Interstate 394 in the late 1980s.

Only federal level protection can force MnDOT to pay for protecting the spring’s source water because most freeway construction money is federal-with-strings.
Native Americans are only recognized at the federal, nation-to-nation, level. Native Americans have legally recognized sacred site rights at majestic landscapes like Bear Butte, or Coldwater. Coldwater still flows at 90-thousand gallons a day above the only true river gorge on the entire Mississippi River.

Coldwater has been flowing at least 10,000 years.

False Economy

Since 1995, the amount of federal money for contract security exceeds the $1.1 million estimated (2001) cost of removing/recycling all 11 buildings and roads inside the 27-acre Coldwater campus.

Early Friday, June 27, a federal security contractor noticed open doors to Building 9—the small, northern-most building closest to the Coldwater entrance. It is the former library for the Bureau of Mines complex where taconite was developed after World War 2. The library was built atop a wetland and is so infected with black mold a respirator is required.

Whoever stripped the copper tubing out of the moldy building could develop respiratory distress—sinus, allergy and asthma complications. Coldwater’s wildlife is probably sensitive enough to toxic odors to keep out.

One hawk got trapped behind a window pane in the Crusher Building, across from Coldwater Reservoir where the pigeons roost. Luckily the hawk was freed by a staffer from the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District during a site tour. The Crusher Building is the old Bureau of Mines most popular break-in location. Guards routinely catch bored kids looking to test their manhood inside with the dead pigeons and guano.

What is Security at Coldwater?

Since Coldwater is the last natural spring of size in Hennepin County and has been used as an emergency drinking water supply, protecting and maintaining the 90-thousand-gallon-a-day water source should be the priority.

But in our upside-down economy, abandoned buildings are the focus of security efforts at Coldwater. The Minneapolis-Saint Paul airport directs about 10 percent of all flights over the Main Building and spring. The old buildings get checked daily, sometimes broken windows get boarded. Three months after a solar battery panel was swiped from atop the Crusher Building, the theft was noticed. The panel supplied electricity to MnDOT’s flow measuring box, which has since been removed.

After construction ended on the Highway 55/62 interchange site, MnDOT was court-ordered to monitor the Coldwater reservoir discharge for 30 months. MnDOT’s numbers recorded a 27,500-gallon-a-day drop in the flow. Despite a state law mandating no “loss of flow to or from the spring,” MnDOT sunk the 55/62 interchange 6.5-feet down into the water table. Thirty percent of Coldwater’s flow came through the interchange area according to dye tests.

The 55 reroute was sold to the public for “safety” and as a three-minute time-savings on a trip to the airport from downtown Minneapolis. That’s as corny as mushroom clouds and WMDs in Iraq but information overload shorts out public memory in America.

Nevertheless, flying citizens are protected by a prohibition on tree planting at Coldwater due to height restrictions. Of course, someone with a shoulder mortar could easily bring down a flight, but don’t dare plant a tree. Now that we are in our second airline crisis since 9/11, phantom minute-savings on unaffordable flights seem—well, nostalgic.

The security subcontract at Coldwater is handled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Since 1995 there has been no landscape maintenance on the 27 acres, allowing invasive, exotic buckthorn and garlic mustard to shade out and overtake indigenous plants. Native plants that held the steep Mississippi bluff in place died back. The result has been massive erosion of the hillside behind the spring outflow, the west side of the reservoir.

Coldwater’s reservoir is silting up. Occasionally water cress grows in the shallows, which previously were five feet deep. Last fall, the National Park Service authorized FWS to destroy the labyrinth at Coldwater. FWS directed the destroyers to dump the rocks that outlined the labyrinth into the erosion gully behind and above the spring. Rocks, unlike plant roots, do not hold soil. Increased pressure on the west reservoir wall and freeze-and-thaw weather are toppling the old limestone.

In other words, neglect is causing the destruction of the historic 1880s Spring House and limestone reservoir that furnished water to Fort Snelling until 1920. Eric Evenson, of the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, explained that stabilization of the hillside requires work at the bottom and the top of the incline and costs more as the damage wears on.

Bush’s Bureaucratic Do-Nothing Interior Department

Coldwater is a federal orphan left over from Congress’s 1995 dissolution of the US Bureau of Mines, part of the Department of the Interior (DOI). Under Bush-2 the DOI attempted to sell off millions of acres, about a quarter of all its land holdings, to profit from or to privatize America’s natural heritage.

For $6 million, the 27-acre Coldwater campus was scheduled to be sold to the Twin Cities airport for multi-level, off-site parking and storage. They almost “paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” But 9/11 happened and the financial collapse of the country’s airlines caused Northwest to pull out of the contract.

In 2003, former Congressman Martin Sabo won a $750,000 appropriation “to protect the Camp Coldwater Spring and restore the Bureau of Mines property to open green space.” This crashed the dreams of U.S. Fish and Wildlife to move its regional offices out of the Whipple Building to Coldwater’s park-like setting.

FWS handled the daily management of the property, a sort of yard work and handyman nuisance for staff in an office beside the airport in Fort Snelling’s Whipple Building. A hostile relationship developed between Coldwater supporters and the FWS, which landed in federal court with an 1805 Dakota treaty rights case. FWS blinked and the case was dismissed.

The process to determine “the future of former Bureau of Mines” was allotted to the National Park Service (NPS). This duty resulted in an 11-pound Environmental Impact Statement and thousands of hours and pieces of paper that came before and after. Coldwater is part of the Fort Snelling National Historic Landmark, the Fort Snelling National Register Historic District and is eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. All the paperwork is in. It has been “in” for years.

Since Sabo’s retirement, no Minnesota champion has pushed for an urban wilderness, a Green Museum where the land is the museum.

While we wait, about 20 carp are circling in the Coldwater reservoir. Somebody dumped the carp last fall. Fish dumping is illegal. The carp didn’t die, they’re not indigenous, and who knows how many carp eggs flushed down the gorge into the Mississippi.

We are trying to figure out why Coldwater’s invisible status is a blessing. July is the time of the Blessing moon, probably an old agriculture reference to lush fruits and vegetables available in mid-summer. Are we waiting for a new federal administration to appoint a new secretary of Interior? Are we waiting for another spring melt to see how much hillside is left behind the spring outflow?

While the government vacillates, the landscape deteriorates.

Susu Jeffrey is the founder of Friends of Coldwater, which recommends National Park Service ownership of 50 acres of Mississippi bluffland from Minnehaha Park to Fort Snelling. Info: www.FriendsofColdwater.org.