BAXTER-Whiskey Creek collects what 400 acres of drainage through heavily developed commercial areas can throw at it, but what may be described as an overlooked stream could become a shining example for water quality.

A $1.5 million project-to create a natural setting with native plants and wildlife habitat to help clean up polluted water before it reaches the Mississippi River-has been years in the making. Currently, rain and snowmelt carry whatever leaks from vehicles or drains onto parking lots into Whiskey Creek and then to the mighty river, which also serves as the drinking resource for entire cities downstream.

The 80-acre former golf course property, purchased by the Good Samaritan Society in 2013, includes the headwaters of Whiskey Creek and the drainage from a large portion of the commercial land in Baxter along Highway 371. The golf course, which dated back into the 1920s, ceased operations at the end of the 2004 season. While plans have come and gone for the site, the land was largely left undisturbed.

Now the city of Baxter is pursuing a purchase of 13 acres of the former golf course for about $500,000 to create a large treatment pond, iron-removal filter and greenspace with a water quality goal. About $1 million in costs is expected to complete the Whiskey Creek restoration project.

Baxter City Administrator Brad Chapulis said the city worked with Good Samaritan, which was comfortable the 13 acres would not impact any of Good Samaritan's plans for the site in the future. The purchase agreement is contingent upon the city obtaining the necessary funds for the water treatment plan and allows time to do so with a closing anticipated by the end of 2019. If all goes according to the city's plan, construction on the site would begin in 2020 and would likely take up to three years to complete and establish plants. The concept plan calls for about 6 acres of open water. The pond and work at the site would slow the water, allow sediments and phosphorous to drop out, use up nitrogen and let much cleaner water continue on to the Mississippi.

Trevor Walter, Baxter public works director, said the site could become a learning opportunity. A trail is planned on the perimeter with an informational kiosk.

As far as water quality, expectations are to remove 37 percent of phosphorus, or 211 pounds, which along with nitrogen, is a primary nutrient in pollution of streams and lakes. About 100,000 pounds of total suspended solids would also expect to be removed annually, or 67 percent of what now flows through Whiskey Creek.

Walter noted the water flowing to the creek comes from the oldest part of Baxter, which was developed before treatment standards. As properties are redeveloped, such as RiverWood Bank with a stormwater retention pond on site, efforts are in place to collect water rather than sending it on to empty into the river.

Walter noted the city has already put considerable resources into water quality protection for Whiskey Creek with $500,000 in upgrades and best management practices during the 2015 Excelsior Road project, $100,000 with the Cypress Drive project and $100,000 with the Baxter Drive project.

Walter noted the city is pursuing the project, not because it was required to do so but because it was the right thing to do.

"We are being proactive," Walter said. "We know it's an issue. We are trying to be good stewards of the land."

Chapulis said the city's elected officials and staff were excited about moving forward and he thanked Good Samaritan leadership for seeing the project's benefits for the entire region and the environment.

"I see it as a great opportunity to address an environmental impact the growth of Baxter had in the '80s and '90s and be able to be proud to say we are doing what is right for the environment," Chapulis said.

A blank slate

In 2014, Shawn Tracy, a water resource scientist then with HDR Engineering in Minneapolis, presented findings from the Whiskey Creek Stormwater Management Study. He described the opportunity before Baxter as great and rare with a blank slate to make a positive impact on both the creek and the Mississippi River. At that time, the city had two main conceptual plans, one with a large pond and the second with a series of connected wetlands. Both came with the goal of protecting the water resources.

In November of 2004, it was announced Pine Meadows would not reopen as a golf course. At that time there was a $5 million purchase agreement between the Pine Meadows Golf Course owners, Continental Golf Corp., and Denali Real Estate Group of Nisswa. There was a lot of community discussion with proponents arguing to keep the course either with private owners or as a municipal course. Denali's commercial development plans for retail and housing and greenspace never materialized as the Great Recession took the economy in its grasp. The property was bank-owned when Good Samaritan Society stepped into the picture as a buyer.

Both Chapulis and Walter noted the many partnerships and collaborations, including local and state agencies and nonprofits from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to the Nature Conservancy and Soil and Water Conservation District, among many others, that have assisted on the project-all drawn together with the goal of protecting the Mississippi River.

Next steps

The city of Baxter will now look at funding options from grants and loans to help pay for the project. Walter said clearing the site of invasive plants may mean burning it off or mowing it and then directed plant removal to get rid of thistle and crabgrass and prepare for the reintroduction of native species, including plants for pollinators such as bees. Walter said the goal is to keep the area as natural as possible for an environmental sanctuary and wildlife habitat.

Walter said the effort will bring back a bridge people may remember from the land's golf course days and future construction will be done with nesting season in consideration for wildlife protection.