If you don’t live in Flint, Michigan or Jackson, Mississippi, you may want to ask where your potable (drinkable) water comes from and how it’s delivered. People in the Twin Cities drink out of the Mississippi River. The City of Minneapolis distributes 57 million gallons of water daily to its three million residents plus businesses and citizens in seven suburbs.

What Are You Drinking?

By Susu Jeffrey Original to Rise Up Times  January 28, 2023

CAMP COLDWATER 1885Photo: Minnesota Historical Society

After the Civil War the U.S. military developed an Industrial water campus for Fort Snelling including the reservoir, Spring House, Pump and Fuel Houses. Coldwater Spring has been flowing at least 10,000-years. Since the 1990s the flow volume has been reduced from 144,000 gal/day to 67,000 by road building and by military and civilian development.

Before We Drank Out of the River

Indigenous local people drank spring water as it issued directly out of the bedrock. Only moving water was safe. Still water could be contaminated by anything that fell or leached into it. Overnight stale water was exchanged for fresh water.

Minneapolis was incredibly swampy dotted with ponds, lakes, rivulets, creeks and spongy soil. There were innumerable springs in our water-blessed area, some known for exceptional qualities such as the Great Medicine Spring no longer flowing in what is now Theodore Wirth Park. Native people traveled long distances for the healing properties of this “medicine.” The water table was lowered for Interstate-394 highway development to provide a solid base to withstand the pounding of traffic.

Coldwater Spring was another famous water source because it furnished safe drinking water to early Fort Snelling after one out of five soldiers died from unsanitary practices. In 1999 the late Anishinabe spiritual elder Eddie Benton Benai testified at a court hearing about the significance of Coldwater:

My grandfather who died in 1942…many times he retold how we traveled, how he and his family, he as a small boy traveled by foot, by horse, by canoe to this great place to where there would be these great religious, spiritual events. And that they always camped between the falls and the sacred water place [Coldwater Spring]….We know that the falls which came to be known as Minnehaha Falls, was a sacred place, a neutral place, a place for many nations to come….How we take care of the water is how it will take care of us.

Before the European invasion of Dakota territory, measles, small pox and population pressure from eastern Indigenous peoples fleeing deadly epidemics interrupted life everlasting. By 1600 escaped Spanish horses made it to the northern Great Plains but in water-rich Minnesota travel by canoe was most efficient.

French fur traders introduced guns, missionaries and whiskey to Anishinabe (Ojibwa/Chippewa) bands who, over centuries, migrated westward down the St. Lawrence River settling on the northern edge of the Great Lakes. In 1838 Joseph Nicollet reported hearing the story of a Dakota woman attacked by enemy Anishinabe at what is now called Frederick Miller Spring in Eden Prairie. She was scalped and left for dead.

But she survived, had children and grandchildren. The Dakota name for the well-known spring was Wi-no-hin-ca k’te-pi meaning “the creek where they killed the woman.” The two Indigenous nations with different histories, cultures, languages and religions skirmished well into the European settlement period.

Dakota people were pushed southward from Mille Lacs to the b’dota, the great confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. B’dota was also the boundary where the Big Woods of the east met the grass lands of the Great Plains, supplied by lesser rainfall supporting tremendous buffalo herds. For the Dakota, it was a land of plenty, their Garden of Eden.


Coldwater Spring before the National Park Service clear cut the 27-acre parkland in 2011.  Photo: Friends of Coldwater

 All Water is Not Equal

Meanwhile up the Mississippi to explore the 1803 Louisiana Purchase came the American army looking for likely locations to establish forts for the purpose of economic expansion and to rid the new territory of the French and British.

In 1805 Lt. Zebulon Pike signed a treaty with the “Sioux Nation” for nine-miles of land on either side of the Mississippi from below the confluence with the Minnesota, north to the Falls of St. Anthony. (Sioux, meaning “snake,” is the pejorative mispronunciation given by the Anishinabe to their enemy-neighbors, the Dakota.)

The 1805 “Pike” treaty was ratified but never proclaimed. Because of the legal SNAFU the validity of this land grab was never adjudicated. In the three times the treaty reached U.S. federal courts (latest attempt was in 2006) charges were dropped rather than taking a legal chance on losing Minneapolis, St. Paul and Bloomington, including the airport and Mall of America, to the Dakota oyate (nation, people).

From 1805 until 1819 American forces vanished while the fur trade flourished. But in the fall of 1819, U.S. soldiers under Lt. Col. Henry Leavenworth built Fort New Hope beside the backwaters of the Minnesota River, below Mendota (b’dota) to oversee the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. So many soldiers died that the fort was abandoned and reestablished atop the bluff between the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers.

Water that is not moving is not safe. Stagnant water grows stuff. All water is not equal.

American soldier scouts followed Dakota trails from the Mississippi up the river gorge along Coldwater Creek to the spring. That’s one version of the takeover of Coldwater Springs, mni owe sni (water-spring-cold). Another telling explains that a sympathetic Dakota gentleman showed the Americans a good water source on the Mississippi side of the confluence after the band watched the military bury one of five of their number. Soldiers had been refilling their emptying barrels of meat with river water and perhaps drinking river water though likely cut (sterilized) with whiskey or applejack (fermented cider).

Dakota people drank wakan mni (sacred water as in Minnesota and Minneapolis) from springs outflowing from limestone bedrock. In winter, seeps (mini springs) are visible along Minneapolis’ West River Road as frozen tiny waterfalls dripping down the steep gorge. The river is walled-in for eight-miles from the Mississippi-Minnesota confluence north to St. Anthony Falls. It is the only true river gorge on the 2,340-mile length of the Mississippi.

Water that is not moving is not safe. Stagnant water grows stuff. All water is not equal.

At a recent water tasting participants were amazed at three distinctly flavored spring waters. Coldwater Spring in Minneapolis, rich in calcium and magnesium, was compared with Eden Prairie’s Anderson Spring water that is high in manganese and arsenic and with the super sand-filtered Frederick Miller Spring.

The problem for Twin Cities people who prefer untreated water is that Coldwater Spring safe water collection is inaccessible and the Anderson Spring is off-tasting with magnanese and arsenic. Frederick Miller is the only free, accessible “raw” water source around which is why people from Fargo to Iowa come to fill their jugs. The tragedy is that Frederick Miller, the last legacy watershed, is threatened by development.

FREDERICK MILLER SPRINGFamous Frederick Miller Spring is always busy because it’s the last best water in Hennepin County though currently threatened by another suburban upscale housing development.  Photo: Richard Chin, Star Tribune

What’s the Best Water?

People prefer the water they’re used to and the beer they’re used to which is about 94-percent local water. The Coca-Cola in Moscow or Paris or your local bottling plant are not quite the same. What flavors water is the path through which it travels.

Like the human body with its subsurface arteries, veins and capillaries water travels underground. Just as water “carries” cholera, water picks up minerals, tiny grains of calcium and magnesium and metals that leave soap scum on the shower floor, corrode plumbing and leave unsightly white limescale around. Given time water can reduce mountains to sand!

The first water reservoir in the Twin Cities was dug in the 1880s after the Civil War by soldiers to capture Mni Owe Sni flowing out of Mississippi gorge limestone. Three individual water veins empty close to each other but have distinct chemical signatures and appear to be a single flow coming out from under the Spring House. Before the reservoir was constructed water was carried to Fort Snelling in barrels in constant rounds of horse-drawn water wagons until an industrial pump house, fuel building and engineer’s home were constructed. By 1920 Fort Snelling replaced the old system with Minneapolis water.

We Drink Treated Water

Since everything alive on Earth requires water, every animal and plant, water is life. In Dakota, it is Mni Wiconi (minn-knee-wa-chon-knee).

The Minneapolis Water Treatment and Distribution Service complexes in Fridley and Columbia Heights use carbon and lime to filter out organic matter. That is anything from dead trees to dog doo in addition to mineral and metal particulate matter sucked-in by the intake system—400 tons per year or 800,000-pounds.

Minneapolis water chemists add charcoal for taste and odor control, chlorine to disinfect, an anti-corrosive to keep lead and copper from dissolving into the water, and fluoride against tooth decay. An estimated 500 treatment tests are performed daily.

“Finished” water, more than 160-million gallons, is stored indoors in seven reservoir buildings before delivery via 1,000-miles of water mains. Since everything alive on Earth requires water, every animal and plant, water is life. In Dakota, it is Mni Wiconi (minn-knee-wa-chon-knee).




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One Comment

  1. fgsjr2015 February 11, 2023 at 4:01 PM

    Although the Flint drinking-water lead-tainting itself was not Obama’s fault, he nonetheless was a major shock to and disappointment for the poisoned Flint folk, who’d expected far more/better from him.

    By publicly drinking a glass of [supposedly] the water, erroneously signifying the entire water system was safe for human ingestion, he had behaved like some TV-promotion actor hired by a seriously ethically-/morally-challenged corporation.

    Though I would expect it from a Republican president or even president Bill Clinton, I found it very disappointing of Obama (maybe because he is Black, as were many/most of the lead-water-ingesting Flint folk), regardless of the big business and/or political pressure he probably had on his head.

    As a then-admirer of then-president Obama, I muttered to myself, “Say it isn’t so”. …

    Meanwhile the common yet questionable refrain STILL prevails among ‘free-market’ capitalist nation governments and corporate circles. It claims that best business practices, including what’s best for consumers, are best decided by business decision-makers. But this was proven false numerous times.

    Western business mentality and, by extension, collective society allow the well-being of human beings to be decided by corporate profit-margin measures. And our governments mostly dare not intervene, perhaps because they fear being labelled anti-business by our avidly capitalist culture.

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