Flood Challenges on Mississippi River

Mississippi River Floodwaters Swamp Upper Midwest, Closing 18 Locks and Dams

High water on the Mississippi river at lock and dam 13 is seen in an aerial photo from Eagle Point Park in Clinton, Iowa, on Sept. 14, 2017. (Photo by Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Editor's Note:

This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with Report For America and the Society of Environmental Journalists, funded by the Walton Family Foundation.


A very wet winter is bringing major spring flooding along the upper Mississippi River. In some communities, the floodwaters are among the top three on record.

The high waters have forced the Army Corps of Engineers to close 18 locks and dams from the Twin Cities to Illinois, halting barge traffic during the river's busy spring shipping season.

Josh Linville, a fertilizer analyst for StoneX, noted on Twitter that producers in the Northern Plains may want to check with the retailers about fertilizer availability. "(The) River is continuing to struggle which means fertilizer resupplies are going to struggle. Higher likelihood that basis will blow out."

USDA on Thursday also noted in its weekly Grain Transportation Report that "no freight is being accepted along the Twin Cities and Mid-Mississippi portions of the river." Locks and dams are expected to stay closed for the next three weeks, USDA stated.

The swollen Mississippi River is overtopping some upriver locks, spilling over roads and soaking fields, parks and businesses. Though the water is expected to crest and start receding in most places by next week, its impacts will linger.

As of Thursday morning, the National Weather Service had issued 58 flood warnings in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Missouri.


Some of locks and dams, like Lock and Dam 4 in Alma, Wisconsin, closed because the water has overtopped the lock chamber where boats typically pass through, said Patrick Moes, deputy public affairs chief for the Corps' St. Paul District. Others closed because the rushing current was pushing barges too close to the dam.

"I've been here 13 years and I've never experienced the amount of closures we're dealing with this year," Moes said. "It's truly a historic flood."

A few locks and dams may open again April 29, but that will ultimately depend on the flood conditions, he said.

Since there's no detour for barges that use the river, they'll have to wait for waters to begin to recede before getting goods moving again.

The historic Black Hawk Bridge that joins Lansing, Iowa, to Wisconsin closed Tuesday so local officials could inspect the integrity of the dike connected to it. In 2017, a Lansing resident was killed because of a washout on the same stretch of road.

"They're trying to make sure nothing like that ever happens again," said Lansing Mayor Melissa Hammell.

The bridge is the only place to cross the Mississippi between La Crosse and Prairie du Chien, which are almost 60 miles apart. With it closed, some people who live and work on different sides of the river are facing a much longer commute.

A city park and baseball diamond in Lansing were flooded, and the local food pantry had to evacuate its building in a low-lying area. High school students helped pantry staff distribute items once it relocated to safer ground, Hammell said.

The community is eager for the river to crest -- estimated at about 19.7 feet -- and for cleanup to begin so they can prepare for summer tourist season, she said.

Flooding impacts should diminish further downriver unless those communities get a lot of rain, said Colin Wellenkamp, executive director of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative.

He said the group will be tracking water levels closely in the St. Louis region, where the Missouri and Illinois rivers join the Mississippi.


The dry fall prevented spring floods from being even worse.

After the early April warmth melted nearly 80% of the upper basin's snowpack in just three days, forecasters feared river flooding would surpass 2001 levels and even creep close to 1965, said Jordan Wendt, service hydrologist for the National Weather Service in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

But last year's drought across the Midwest left the ground drier and ready to suck up some of that water. It took three days of melting for soils to become saturated, Wendt said.

Still, some areas were hit hard -- including where the Wisconsin River feeds into the Mississippi near where Wisconsin and Illinois border with Iowa. So much water was rushing in from the smaller river that it was essentially forming a small lake where the water waited until it could flow down the Mississippi, Wendt said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sent a team of engineers down to nearby McGregor and Marquette, Iowa, to help them manage their flood response, Moes said. The river is expected to crest there at about 23 feet.

Wendt said most locations should fall back under flood stage at the end of the first week of May, and the river should be back near its banks by the middle of that month.

Until then, though, residents will have to deal with high water.

On low-lying French Island, which sits between the Black and Mississippi rivers in La Crosse County, rising waters led a few people to voluntarily evacuate their homes, Town of Campbell fire chief Nate Melby said Wednesday.

The town received large pumps from the Army Corps to drive water out of neighborhoods, a strategy that has been working, Melby said. During the 2001 flood, 70 homes on the southern part of the island were flooded with 3 to 4 feet of water. This time around, they've been able to keep the water down, he said.

The river crested in La Crosse Wednesday evening at just below 16 feet. Even when the floodwaters recede, the community will have a tough job ahead cleaning up mud and debris the river left behind. But Melby said he's encouraged by the way they came together to respond.

"You see the best in people in those times," he said.

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco and DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton also contributed to this article.