For anyone living along the Minnesota Riverbank, flooding is a part of life.
The warnings come and go like severe thunderstorms. Flooding happens, it makes the news, and — after the damage is cleaned up — people move on until the next flood comes.
But experts on the Minnesota River are concerned that if the riverbank in Shakopee isn’t stabilized soon, a rising river could irreversibly erode American Indian mounds and damage vital sanitary sewers that service the western part of the city.
On Oct. 10, the Minnesota House Capital Investment Committee toured the southwest metro as part of its statewide tour to learn about regional public works projects that need state funding. During its tour, Shakopee city leaders and District 55A Rep. Brad Tabke, D-Shakopee, took the committee to Huber Park, where a neon pink flag stood a hundred feet from the river to mark where the water level is projected to be in 2060.
“Wow,” some of the committee members whispered under their breaths.
The concept plan for mitigating Shakopee’s water level problem would be to slant the river bank so it floods naturally. When water levels are lower, the river bank will be walkable, and when they are higher, that area would be designated for flooding.
The cost for this project would be in the neighborhood of $11.73 million.
The land between County Highway 101 and the Minnesota River is rich with culturally-sensitive land. Shakopee City Developer Michael Kerski said the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux’s three largest native burial grounds lie on this corridor, and because of river flooding and erosion, this historic piece of land is in danger.
“This impacts the oldest cultural resources that are left in Minnesota,” Kerski said.
The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, which works to protect culturally-sensitive American Indian burial grounds, said in a statement that its staff is “working with the tribes, who are working with state and local units of government to protect the burial grounds, including ones in the flood-prone zone areas.”
The SMSC and city of Shakopee are working together to protect the cultural corridor. Shakopee’s recently-approved Parks and Trails Master Plan drafts a regional tourism destination that celebrates the American Indian heritage near the riverbank that would educate visitors on the history of the area. But the first step, city leaders say, is stabilizing the riverfront to protect that land.
When the river floods, 40 of the city’s sanitary sewers located near the banks become inundated with water, which means emergency repairs become difficult. The residents serviced by these sewers comprise 20% of Shakopee’s population and are mostly on the city’s west end.
“I lose sleep when the manholes are covered,” Shakopee Public Works Director Steve Lillehaug said while showing the bond committee the riverbank and areas where problems have occurred.
This spring, the river was flooded for three months and is again starting to hit flood levels, causing another concern, Lillehaug said.
The rising river water levels means the city probably wouldn’t be able to keep up with its sanitary sewage if the manholes along the river were indefinitely covered in water.
“We have issues in Shakopee that we’re simply going to have to fix,” Lillehaug told the bond committee.
Problems along the Minnesota River aren’t unique to Shakopee. Jon Hendrickson, a hydraulics engineer with the St. Paul District Corps of Engineers, said many communities along the Minnesota Riverbank are experiencing erosion that is either directly impacting their areas, or impacting other communities downstream.
Linda Loomis, an administrator for the Lower Minnesota River Watershed District, said the root of the problem lies in changes to the floodplains: when developments in watershed districts sprout up, and when farmers send their polluted water downstream, the problem snowballs up the river.
Lillehaug told the bond committee less than one percent of the river water eroding Shakopee’s riverbank is from Shakopee.
“It’s really the state’s water,” he said.
Loomis also said much of Shakopee’s water level problem comes from farming communities farther west, like Marshall.
“But the city of Shakopee does it to folks downstream, too,” she said. “So we all have to be part of the solution. We can’t just say it’s not from us. Because their water goes someplace. Maybe it doesn’t stay in Shakopee but it goes somewhere.”
Hendrickson, while acknowledging Shakopee has a problem that needs to be stabilized, also said some rivers that have been rising for years eventually reach equilibrium, which could be the case with the Minnesota River. This means the water level problem could somewhat correct itself 15 to 20 years from now, after the river stabilizes itself.
Loomis, however, said something should be done soon, adding that communities and cities across the state should take a more concerted effort to reduce their impact on the river.
“The longer we wait, the more dire consequences will be,” she said.
Hendrickson said one thing’s for sure: flow levels in the Minnesota River are going to continue to increase for the foreseeable future. The problem is that nobody knows to what degree these levels will rise. And other than stabilizing the flood zones, which costs millions of dollars, nobody really knows how to tackle it.
“High water affects people,” Hendrickson said. “There are some things we can do… but I think it’s kind of limited.”
Shakopee Schools Assistant Superintendent David Orlowsky presented on three more fleshed-out district rezoning options for the 2020-2021 school year at the Oct. 15 school board meeting.
The rezoning is due to lopsided headcounts between East and West middle schools — a result of budding developments throughout the community, Orlowsky said.
As of this year, there are 1,173 students enrolled at West Middle School and 746 students at East Middle School. Each building was designed to hold about 1,000 students. And Orlowsky said the projected student population between the two schools continues to show a margin of about 400 students, putting West Middle School over its capacity indefinitely unless the district makes a change.
The difference in student attendance causes roadblocks with the school district in terms of staffing, scheduling students’ classes, a crowded lunchroom and hallways at West Middle School, plus transfer requests.
The Shakopee School Board voted to move forward with two of the rezoning options that will be presented to families and students at school conferences and information sessions in the coming weeks.
Orlowsky said the number of students who receive free and reduced lunch, the number of special education students and the number of English learner students are also important factors outside of student population to consider. Currently, 44% of students at East receive free and reduced lunch, compared to 34% of students at West.
Orlowsky’s rezoning proposals attempted to mitigate that equity margin.
The first option approved by the board would split the boundary east-west along Marschall Road until the border hits Valley View Road and touches Independence Drive and 17th Avenue. Students living in the Windermere, Amberglen, Countryside and Prairie Meadow developments would attend West Middle School. Students living in Canterbury Commons, Sarazin Flats, Ridge Creek, Summit Preserve and other developments on Shakopee’s far east side would attend East Middle School.
In this scenario, the margin between West and East middle schools for students who receive free and reduced lunch, as well as the English Learner students, would be one percentage point. The special education margin between the two schools would be zero. The population difference after the next six years would be 22 students.
This boundary would affect 422 sixth- and seventh-graders who would be rezoned to a different middle school.
“That’s just about perfect,” board member Matt McKeand said.
Another option the school board voted to move forward with, but with seemingly less enthusiasm, was similar to the first zoning option, with some adjustments. In this scenario, students who lived in or near the Sarazin Flats or the Prairie Meadows development would attend West Middle School.
The free/reduced lunch margin between West and East middle schools with this option is four percentage points, and the margin between special education students is two percentage points. The percentage of English Learner students in this scenario would be the same between the two schools. The six-year population projection with this option puts the population difference between the schools at 34.
This boundary would affect 471 current sixth- and seventh-graders who would be rezoned to a different middle school.
“We’re trying not to split through people’s backyards, but it’s not perfect,” Shakopee Superintendent Mike Redmond said.
The board seemed pleased with the options Orlowsky presented.
“All of these are winners, so now we can choose the best of them,” board member Joe Aldrich said.
The school board also directed Orlowsky and his team to draft a plan for allowing seventh-graders who have been rezoned to have the option to stay at the same school for their final year if they meet an application deadline.
Some ideas the school board discussed for how to handle displaced seventh-graders who want to stay at their current middle school would be creating a hard deadline for families to apply for intra-district transfers.
Seventh-graders, who have been at their middle school for two years, should be prioritized, the board said. The school board also seemed most keen on Redmond’s idea to somehow cap the intra-district transfers at a certain number or percentage point to regulate the student population at each middle school.
“If everybody chose to go to East, and vice versa... there’s a potential for significant imbalance by offering that choice,” Redmond said.
Board member Reggie Bowerman added that if the intra-district transfer capacity was not reached, the district should be able to accommodate other grades.
“If we find there aren’t that many (intra-district transfer) requests, I think we should be able to dip lower,” Bowerman said. “Start with the seventh-graders, and if there’s excess capacity, you keep getting lower on the request,” adding that all seventh-graders who submit transfer requests before the deadline would be treated equally — not on a first-come, first-served basis.
The rest of the board members seemed to agree, nodding their heads.
The board also endorsed a shuttle that would bring intra-district transfers from their assigned middle school to their preferred middle school. Aldrich mentioned the problem with this model is that school buses would have to wait until the shuttle arrived at each school before leaving at the end of the day. Other members agreed that this would be inconvenient, but didn’t see a better alternative, adding this would only last for a year.
Finance Director Jeff Priess said the shuttle could be worked into next year’s budget.
The district will decide on the zoning option, what to do with intra-district transfers, transportation, siblings who want to stick together, and other issues at the Nov. 18 school board meeting, after feedback from parents and families has been obtained.
“We’ll take whatever feedback we get, and listen to it… but ultimately the board has to make the decision,” Bowerman said.