After 100 years underground, Phalen Creek will finally see the light

Located on the border between St. Paul and Maplewood, Lake Phalen is a hive of activity. During the summer, Dragon Boats race across the water as crowds cheer on the racers from the shoreline. There are picnics and soccer games, fishing, golf and festivals. The Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District holds an annual WaterFest celebration in the summer, and collaborates with City of St. Paul on a Phalen Freeze Fest in the depths of winter. There is a public swimming beach, a shaded three-mile trail around the lake, and a colorful array of native plants along the shoreline, planted to stabilize the shoreline and restore habitat for birds and pollinators.

Students from area schools carry signs and puppets during a WaterFest parade at Lake Phalen. Photo from Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District.

In fact, Lake Phalen has been a source of life for people in Minnesota for nearly 2000 years. Before European-American settlement, a creek flowed out of Lake Phalen and ran four miles south to the Mississippi River (Wakpa Tanka), joining the river just east of what is now downtown St. Paul. The Dakota people traveled this corridor by canoe, heading inland to Lake Phalen, and further north through a connected chain of lakes all the way to White Bear Lake, one of many areas where they gathered wild rice.

Two men fish by canoe on Lake Phalen. 150 years ago, a four mile creek connected the lake with the Mississippi River just east of downtown St. Paul.

By 1930, however, Phalen Creek had entirely disappeared. It was driven underground into pipes that now flow beneath buildings and roads, and cut off from the Mississippi River by railroad tracks and more roads. Now, after 100 years underground, Phalen Creek will finally see the light again.

Lower Phalen Creek Project, a Native-Led, East Side environmental organization, has been leading the effort to restore Phalen Creek and its surrounding landscape since 1997. They have worked with City of St. Paul, volunteers, and other organizations to restore Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, where Phalen Creek once flowed into the Mississippi River. Now, after decades of research and advocacy, Lower Phalen Creek Project has secured $2.8 million in funding from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council to begin daylighting Phalen Creek. Funds will be used to design, construct and maintain ¼ mile of stream flowing south out of Lake Phalen, along Wheelock/Johnson Parkway.

Consultants at Inter-Fluve, Inc. produced this visual to represent the proposed location, general design elements, and predicted habitat benefits of a restored stream channel of Phalen Creek at the Lake Phalen / Maryland Avenue project site. Image from Lower Phalen Creek Project.

The transformation will bring life back to a buried stream.

You see, a river, lake or creek is more than just the water the flows through it. A creek is a living ecosystem, with fish, snails, rocks and plants. It is dragonflies laying eggs in the water and frogs hopping quickly when children come searching. A pipe below ground carries water and sometimes litter, but a stream carries life.

A groundwater spring at Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary – Wakan Tipi, where Phalen Creek once met the Mississippi River.

Thanks to years of relationship-building and community engagement, Lower Phalen Creek Project’s plan to restore Phalen Creek is widely supported by the local community and government partners. The proposal to the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council included letters of support from the Prairie Island Indian Community, City of St. Paul, Ramsey County, State Representative and State Senator for the area, Capitol Region and Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed Districts, Urban Roots, and Trust for Public Land. A 2018 community survey also found that local residents are strongly in support of the project. 

Though the first allocation of funding will only restore the first ¼ mile of the creek, Lower Phalen Creek Project has worked with Interfluv Inc. to complete a feasibility study, and hopes to eventually restore the entire stream.

This diagram from Lower Phalen Creek Project shows the proposed stream alignment for Phalen Creek in the future. A feasibility study conducted by Interfluv Inc. found Reach 5 and reach 7 to be the best locations to begin work currently.

To learn more about Lower Phalen Creek Project, go to: