The South Fork of the Whitewater River roared beneath County Road 26 outside Elba last week. Portions of Highway 76 and other roads were closed due to high water.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Some Minnesotans and Wisconsinites went straight from shoveling to sandbagging this month, when the weather swung quickly from piling up a massive snowpack to melting it down and adding more rain to boot.
Meltwater washed over fields in rural Winona County and backed up in some Winona neighborhoods, while neighbors hacked away at ice blocking storm sewers. Several roads in western Winona County were closed last week due to high water on the Whitewater River and its tributaries. “It’s not horrible at this point,” Arcadia City Administrator Bill Chang said of the flood-prone Trempealeau River and Turton Creek. “The rain has been steady, but it hasn’t been anything that’s out of control.” He added, “In regards to the preparation for flooding … we’re kind of taking normal procedure here and making sure we’ve got sandbags ready to go.”
Earlier this month in Alma, Wis., U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) staff led a sandbagging training. In Stillwater, Minn., people are already building sandbag dikes in preparation for what is projected to be a flooding season to remember.
The National Weather Services’ (NWS) longterm outlook projects that the Mississippi River at Winona has a nearly 50 percent chance of reaching 19 feet in early April, and a 25 percent change of reaching 20 feet. Either figure would put this year’s flood among the top five of all time in Winona. Winona’s levee is designed to handle it, but a 20-foot crest would be on par with the historic floods of 2001 and 1965.
“We’re staging up for it,” Winona Public Works Director Keith Nelson said of the coming flood. “The system is designed to handle everything they’re predicting for us; we just need to operate the levee the way we’re supposed to.” Winona’s flood protection system is more than just levees that sit there and keep the water out. To keep Winona dry, city crews need to fire up pumps, open certain flood gates, and lock other ones down tight — not to mention patrolling for weaknesses in the levee. Nelson said that city staff will start turning on pumps and sealing up openings in the levee wall next week. “We’re doing what we normally do to prepare for high water because, yes, the predictions are all out there that were supposed to get higher than normal water on the Mississippi.”
On Latsch Island, boathouse owners Josh Lallaman and Richie Swanson fired up their ice augers last week in order to free their boathouses from the ice. They and other boathouse owners were caught in an unusual predicament: their boathouses were still locked in ice, but the river was projected to rise several feet over the weekend. Lallaman and Swanson were concerned that the ice would hold their boathouses down while rising water came up over the ice and flooded their homes. “A lot of people use chainsaws to cut the ice. This year, because the water on top of the ice was already so deep, I was using an ice auger,” Lallaman explained. One hole at a time, Lallaman perforated the ice around his boathouse and released it from the ice’s grip. Since then, projections for the river’s rise have moderated. “In the end I don’t know if it was totally necessary to cut the boathouse out, but it was a just-in-case kind of measure,” he said. Swanson reported that on the downstream edge of Latsch Island — on Wolf Spider Island — some boathouse owners had to evacuate because they simply couldn’t reach their homes. “A couple people are abandoning their houses because they’re caught in a space where the river is going to go to at least nine feet … which means that the water will be over the island so they cannot walk, but the river is still frozen, so they cannot boat either,” he explained.
This is just the beginning of the treacherous flood season for boathouse owners. “I’m planning for the mother of all floods,” Swanson stated.
“We’ve been at it for about a week and a half now,” USACE Public Affairs Specialist Patrick Loch stated, referring to the corps’ efforts to touch base with emergency managers across the region and stockpile sandbags for the corps’ own needs. “We’re kind of like that last line of defense,” Loch stated. “If [local authorities] start to exhaust their resources or they get overwhelmed, we’re able to supplement them and provide technical assistance.” USACE lockmasters are keeping an eye on the river, and once the flow reaches a certain level — there are specific levels for each lock and dam — the lockmasters will open the dam’s gates wide open and let the water roll through, Loch explained. He added that the corps is awaiting a new longterm forecast from the NWS that should come out next week. “That’ll give us more data on where the most impacted communities might be,” Loch stated.
Trempealeau County Emergency Manager Dan Schreiner said that the frac sand mining company Hi Crush donated sand and sandbags and lent out a bagging machine, and that his office has distributed sandbags to all the cities, villages, towns, and local fire departments that requested them. Winona County Emergency Manager Ben Klinger reported, “The city of Winona is offering sand, but people need to bring their own bags.” Nelson explained the city has sand available in a big pile at a vacant lot off Louisa Street behind Menards and Mills Fleet Farm. “If it’s for filling sandbags, they can just take it. We don’t want people backing up trucks,” he stated.