The Old Bassett Creek Tunnel (OBCT) is a 1.5-mile stormwater tunnel that extends under the Harrison, Sumner-Glenwood, and North Loop Neighborhoods of Minneapolis. Built in the early 1900s, the OBCT was designed to convey water from the historic Bassett Creek and its 40.88-square-mile watershed to the Mississippi River. The tunnel encapsulates the creek underground, and its construction helped to reduce the impact that its flood waters had on the rapidly developing area.
From 1976 to 1992, the City of Minneapolis, Bassett Creek Water Management Commission, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers partnered to construct a new tunnel (the New Bassett Creek Tunnel) to convey waters from Bassett Creek into the Mississippi River. The new Bassett Creek tunnel was constructed to divert Bassett Creek as well as surface water runoff from I-94 and other highly developed areas of North Minneapolis to the Mississippi River. As a result, the OBCT now conveys flow from Bassett Creek only under heavy rains and high (stream) flow conditions. Under typical conditions, OBCT carries water only from the 870 acres (1.36 square miles) that drain directly into it via the city storm sewer system.
The history and oversight of the OBCT is complex. The area draining into the OBCT is overseen by two separate watershed management organizations. The Bassett Creek Water Management Commission (BCWMC) manages the area that drains to Bassett Creek. The tunnel itself, and the 870 acres that drain directly into it, are within the MWMO watershed. The MWMO has been monitoring water quality and stage at the tunnel outlet since 2008. The OBCT is owned by the City of Minneapolis, which is responsible for its operation and maintenance. As part of the Bassett Creek Flood Control Project, the city and BCWMC made an agreement to accommodate 50 cubic feet per second (cfs) of overflow from Bassett Creek to the OBCT during a 100-year rain event.
Given the unique nature of the OBCT and the reduced need for using it to convey water (under most conditions), MWMO became interested in studying its function and exploring opportunities for additional uses of the infrastructure. These uses may include stormwater treatment or storage of stormwater for reuse.
In 2012, the MWMO and City of Minneapolis Public Works Department came together to study the OBCT. The purpose of this initial effort was to increase understanding of how the tunnel is functioning and document its condition. An inspection during fall 2012 revealed more than 3,000 cubic yards of sediment and debris deposited within the tunnel. It was also noted that limited access points into the tunnel could make removing this material a challenge.
In the spring of 2017, the MWMO and staff from Barr Engineering walked the tunnel again, this time performing a more detailed analysis of its contents. Minnesota Public Radio reporters joined the team on their walk, documenting the team’s efforts. In addition to collecting data on the material within the tunnel, the 2017 study also documented the structural integrity of OBCT and resulted in a plan on how to clean it out. Results of this work confirmed the presence of 3,900 cubic yards (approximately 6,250 tons, when wet) of sediment; laboratory testing indicated 2,500 pounds of phosphorus, 2,000 pounds of nitrogen, and hundreds of pounds of heavy metals within that sediment. In addition, the team noted significant amounts of debris. All of these materials had the potential of being mobilized and flushed into the Mississippi River. Both the city and MWMO agreed that the next step was to remove this material.
The structural inquiry performed in this project showed that OBCT is generally in “fair” condition. Barr Engineering noted substantial sediment and debris accumulation throughout the entire length of the OBCT. The City of Minneapolis is using the results of this work to plan future tunnel maintenance and improvement activities. During a street reconstruction project in the summer of 2017, the city took advantage of an opportunity to add an access point to the tunnel for future maintenance. The City of Minneapolis Public Works Department used this opportunity to add an additional entry point at that location, easing access to the tunnel, for the purposes of future maintenance activities.
As of October 2020, sediment and debris has been removed from two segments of the OBCT. Phase I, in the uppermost reach, was completed in 2018, and Phase II was completed in 2020.
The MWMO intends to pursue additional cleanout phases with the city. Future work will include both additional sediment and debris removal, as well as monitoring, to observe the rate and nature of how sediment begins to accumulate back within the tunnel. There is a point in the tunnel where fluctuating water levels in the Mississippi River actually cause the tunnel to receive backflow to a certain reach, so the MWMO does not intend to clean out the entire 7,900 linear feet. Future cleanout phases will be dependent on location and creation of access hatches, as well as other site access constraints, such as how the tunnel becomes incrementally deeper below ground as you move further downstream. The MWMO also intends to monitor the amount of time it would take for the tunnel to accumulate sediment again, to help determine the potential frequency of tunnel cleanouts needed.
Uncovering the Condition of the Old Bassett Creek Tunnel
MWMO Blog Post - August 2, 2017
Beneath the streets of Minneapolis, an old stream bed winds its way through a stormtunnel from Bassett Creek, just west of downtown, all the way to the Mississippi River. Earlier this summer, MWMO staff walked the tunnel — called Old Bassett Creek Tunnel — with a team from Barr Engineering...
Old Minneapolis tunnel may get new life in an era of climate change
MPR News - May 31, 2017
The old Bassett Creek tunnel below downtown Minneapolis doesn't carry nearly as much water as it used to. But as heavy rain storms become more frequent in a changing climate, officials are exploring whether it could play a bigger role in the future...