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  Thursday January 29th, 2015    

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Winona region copes with high water, again (07/02/2014)
By Chris Rogers

     Photo by Chris Rogers

. There were more turtles than boaters on the docks at Dick's Marina Monday. For boaters, getting to the slips required a quick ferry. Longtime river watchers were amazed at the river's late season crest, the third of the year. City crews have worked hard to prepare the city. As of Tuesday, the river had been above flood stage for a total of more than three weeks this year.

There will be two causes for celebration on Friday. If predictions hold true, the Mississippi River in Winona will fall from moderate to minor flood stage (below 15 feet) in time for Fourth of July fireworks. The river crested Tuesday at 15.5 feet, and up and down the valley fingers are crossed that this third rise will be the last. Veteran river watchers regaled each other with tales from the flood of 2001, when the mighty river swelled to over 20 feet and water lapped less than two feet from the top of the dike system, or of sandbagging poor Winona in 1965, when the floodwaters rose to their greatest height in memory: 20.9 feet. Yes, many have seen worse, but still were flabbergasted by the persistence of high water late into the season this year.

"Terrible," said Dick's Marina mechanic Mark Mathot when asked about the affect of the high water on the marina. Mathot has been busy with repairs, but river traffic has been very quiet. "It's almost the Fourth of July weekend and we're still doing spring work just getting boats ready," he said. It is a shame that river levels have kept boaters off the river for both Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, but no one should be out, said marina owner Jeff Kanz. "It's foolish to go out there." If a boat broke down upriver of the Wagon Bridge or the former swing bridge right now, it would be crushed against the bridge, he observed. "We've had too many tragedies in the last few years," he added.

On the other side of the dike, city crews have been busy preparing the city for high water. Public Works employees fired up pumps along the dike system to suck up overflow from Lake Winona and seepage, the river water that works its way through the ground under the dike. Workers sealed the floodgates that run beneath Prairie Island Road, protecting the marshes within the dike system from the rising waters of Frog Slough. Little could be done for the inundated campsites at Prairie Island Campground, where campers who planned vacations around the city facilities have been disappointed.

Sewer treatment costs rose with river levels, City Engineer Brian DeFrang said. Flooding increased the water table elevation and groundwater infiltrated every crack in sewer pipes across the city, he explained. All of that extra water flows to the waste water treatment plant. The plant can more than handle the extra water, but not without added costs, DeFrang said.

At the Winona Marina last week, workers installed the large removable flood wall that separates the marina parking lot and boat slips. By last weekend, floodwaters rose up to the removable flood wall. Smaller gates block other openings in the levee at the marina and at Levee Park, but because they sit at a higher elevation and are more quickly installed than the large gate, were not placed.

The removable flood gate at the marina works, said Dennis Benish of Winona Marina. However, the flood gates proposed for Levee Park were a bad idea, "because it's such a project to [install the gates], it'd be ridiculous," he said when asked about the recently rejected Levee Park proposal. He described how it takes several city workers hours to install the large gate at the marina. "The cost would be phenomenal every time they had to do it," he said of installing gates at Levee Park.

As the river rose, Latsch Island shrunk and shrunk. Boathouse resident Richie Swanson described how he and his neighbors adapted to their disappearing shoreline: tying down extra planks, paddling back and forth from the bridge landing. Personally, Swanson dons waders and walks across the sunken island. To get to his boathouse, each day he gingerly steps across a plank laid over the deep, fast water. He joked that if he stepped off, "you'd never interview me again."

At Levee Park, Winonans young and old wondered at the swollen river. A boy ran up to the flood wall, looked out with a gaping mouth, then ran back to get his family, crying, "Come here, you've got to see this!" He pestered his mother with questions about whether the water would overrun the whole town. She answered patiently. "Thanks, Levee!" the boy yelled as they walked away. 


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