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National cemetery in Minnesota prepares for upgrade

By Brian Johnson
Dolan Media Newswires

Fort Snelling National Cemetery has areas with grass in need of watering, the cemetery director said. Planned improvements include installation of underground irrigation controllers, pump house repairs and replacement of irrigation piping mains. (Photo by Bill Klotz)

Fort Snelling National Cemetery has areas with grass in need of watering, the cemetery director said. Planned improvements include installation of underground irrigation controllers, pump house repairs and replacement of irrigation piping mains. (Photo by Bill Klotz)

Minneapolis — Fort Snelling National Cemetery has 200,000 grave sites on 350 acres of land, with 20 new interments every day. A staff of 50, with help from summertime temporary workers, maintains the grounds to standards befitting a national shrine.

It’s no easy task.

“You can imagine trimming around 200,000 grave sites and headstones,” said Jim Gemmell, director of Fort Snelling National Cemetery. “We have mowers going all the time.”

Making the task more challenging: The water that keeps the grass healthy and green courses its way to the turf through piping systems that have essentially outlived their usefulness.

Some grassy areas at the cemetery need attention, especially during hot and dry summers.

“Right now that turf is crying for a drink,” Gemmell said.

Seeking to quench that thirst, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which oversees national cemeteries, is laying the groundwork for water-infrastructure improvements at Fort Snelling.

The department is seeking proposals for a $1 million to $2 million project that will include installation of underground irrigation controllers, pump house repairs and replacement of irrigation piping mains at the cemetery.

Gemmell said the work, which is expected to start in spring 2011, includes replacement of pipes that were initially installed in 1939. The cemetery opened that year at its existing site near the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Some of the joints are starting to fail and maintenance crews are having difficulty getting water to the field, he said.

Complicating matters is the fact that the cemetery completed an expansion last year as part of a $25 million project. The expansion puts that much more pressure on those aging pipes and pumps.

“The size of the cemetery is increasing all the time, so the water demand is increasing with it as far as irrigation is concerned,” Gemmell said.

“There is a lot of turf we are told to maintain to what we call national shrine standards. Now we are having difficulty getting water to the field. So what we are going to do is probably evaluate what our needs are and start replacing some of the pipes that can’t accommodate the demand anymore.

“We’re talking a lot of demand here.”

Gemmell said the cemetery draws water from the Jordan aquifer and is authorized to use up to 100 million gallons of nonpotable water a year, although it typically uses closer to 40 million gallons.

But maintaining a national shrine involves a lot more that just pumping water and mowing grass.

The cemetery never shuts down, Gemmell said, whether there’s four feet of snow on the ground or stifling heat and humidity.

Gemmell, a veteran himself, has a construction background and has worked at the cemetery since 1987. He walks the grounds every day, talking to vets and keeping an eye out for problems such as sunken grave stones.

As part of the most recent expansion, the cemetery put thousands of preplaced crypts into the ground. The crypts provide a firm base for the 240-pound grave stones and helps prevent settling, Gemmell said.

Another benefit: The preplaced concrete crypts take up less space than the older grave sites, which helps cemetery officials make better use of the sprawling property.

“We have to be stewards of this property,” Gemmell said. “… We have some areas that are stressed now and we want to make sure our infrastructure is properly maintained.”

Bottom line: “It’s all about the veterans,” he said.

Bids for the water-infrastructure work are due Aug. 31. The project is a set-aside for small businesses owned by veterans with a service-related disability.

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