Sharon Day, an Ojibwe water walker, once walked alongside the Mississippi River from Itasca State Park to Louisiana in a ceremony to restore the waters of America’s mightiest river.
She’s just as excited about a quarter mile of St. Paul’s long-buried Phalen Creek returning after nearly a century underground.
“Scientists look at water as H2O. We look at water as water is life,” she said of the creek, which since the 1920s has been channeled through a sewer pipe to the Mississippi. “I think [daylighting Phalen Creek] is so beautiful. It’s like if you have a wound and there is scar tissue over it. Sometimes you open it up, let air in. Help the healing.”
Officials with the Lower Phalen Creek Project, a Native-led nonprofit launched 24 years ago in part to restore the creek that once meandered 4 miles from Lake Phalen to the Mississippi, say they are on the verge of finally “daylighting” the creek. When they do, Executive Director Maggie Lorenz said, it will not only be spiritually and culturally significant to local Native Americans, but ecologically important as well.
“[Phalen Creek] is an essential part of the community — it will bring more natural habitat and it means more opportunities for recreation and stormwater management,” said Lorenz, who is Dakota and Ojibwe. “And, from a cultural perspective, we are really interested in restoring the land and taking care of the land according to our traditional teachings.”
Last month, the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council recommended the project receive $3.2 million in state funding in 2022-23. The first quarter mile of the stream leaving the lake could be restored by 2025, Lorenz said. It is one of two segments of Phalen Creek that could feasibly be restored — the other is near Swede Hollow Park along the Bruce Vento Trail.
Restoring even small parts of the waterway to something close to their natural state will improve water quality, species habitat and the community’s care of the creek, said officials with the Ramsey-Washington Metro and Capitol Region watershed districts. Both organizations are working with the Lower Phalen Creek Project.
What’s more, daylighting will ease the effects of untreated stormwater that flows through a sewer pipe to the Mississippi, carrying contaminants directly to the river.
“Daylighting allows treatment, habitat restoration, groundwater recharge,” said Elizabeth Hosch, permit program manager with Capitol Region Watershed District. “Even when doing [daylighting] in sections, those benefits are available.”
Paige Ahlborg, watershed project manager with the Ramsey-Washington Metro district that oversees the headwaters of the creek, said creeks like Phalen were sunken underground because water was seen as getting in the way of development.
“Back when this was put underground, that was just the way they did things,” she said.
Such thinking has changed. The benefits of surface water, with shoreline vegetation and habitat, not only are seen as restorative for water quality but attractive to developers and neighbors as well.
“Another benefit is just restoring a community’s connection to the water,” Ahlborg said. “Seeing it makes it harder to do things that harm it. We still have a number of people who think that ‘if I put something down the [storm]sewer drain, it will be treated.'”
But for Tara Perron, a Dakota author and medicine maker, the benefits of Phalen Creek’s restoration are more heartfelt. Her late father always drew peace from the waters that flowed there, even if they were unseen and polluted.
Returning even small sections of the creek to the way they were, she said, is healing.
“Lower Phalen Creek [Project] is so sensitive and caring about what they do,” Perron said. “Even though it was polluted, my father felt the spirituality of the place and he would clean it up. And when he did that, I too felt something sacred there.”
Perron said she is certain her dad knows restoration is coming.
“I am sure he can feel it now, too,” she said.