Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Minnesotans on flood watch during an unusually wet week

A country road with water around it indicating a possible flood risk-6
South Fork Crow River overflowed onto parkland on Monday in Watertown due to heavy rain.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Minnesotans are on flood watch this week. After a two year drought and an abnormally dry winter, we’ve been hit with weeks of rain that's got soil saturated and rivers rising.

Several cities including Delano, Henderson and Saint Paul have already closed roads near swollen rivers. Craig Schmidt, a senior hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Chanhassen joined Minnesota Now to talk about the unusual flooding.

MPR News host Cathy Wurzer also talked to Lisa Hiebert, public information officer from the City of Saint Paul’s Public Works department, about how the city near the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers is planning for high water.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] CATHY WURZER: Minnesotans are on flood watch this week. After a two-year drought and an abnormally dry winter, we've been hit with weeks of rain that's got soil saturated and rivers rising. Several cities, including Delano, Henderson, and Saint Paul, have already closed roads near swollen rivers. The latest river forecast for the Mississippi at Saint Paul is an example. It calls for a 6 and 1/2 feet rise over the next week to almost major flood stage.

Here to tell us more about this unusual flooding is Craig Schmidt, a Senior Hydrologist for the National Weather Service office in Chanhassen. Hey, Craig. Thanks for taking the time.


CATHY WURZER: I have to say, this latest river forecast got me-- my eyes wide open here for Saint Paul, the Mississippi River, close to major flood stage? Tell me more.

CRAIG SCHMIDT: Yeah. We've been just under such a wet pattern over the last 30 to 60 days, as much as 10 to 12 to 15 inches of rain above normal in much of central and southern Minnesota that the rivers have just started rising and continue to do so. We are now looking at so much rain falling in the Crow Basin and over the entire Minnesota Basin that all of this is going to be funneling through the Mississippi at Saint Paul. We are looking at it to continue to rise close to major flood stage by late next week. And we could still continue to go above that over time with the rainfall that we still have coming in the forecast.

CATHY WURZER: Because, of course, Saint Paul-- downtown Saint Paul is close to the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. Is that what's going on here?

CRAIG SCHMIDT: Yes, that is right. So it's influenced by both the headwaters of the Mississippi, but even-- especially even more so the Minnesota. That actually probably provides almost 2/3 of the water that flows through the Mississippi at Saint Paul.

CATHY WURZER: How unusual is it to have flooding in June after we had such a dry winter?

CRAIG SCHMIDT: Yeah, it is somewhat unusual, although we did something similar to that in 2019. We also had quite a bit of rain in the summer. And also, go back to 2014, it was also another very wet June year. It just seems like, in this day and age, we go from one extreme to the other, and we don't stay in between very often. So I would say, though, that I didn't expect to be talking to you about flooding when I looked at things in March and April.

CATHY WURZER: Well, given that we started from a drought and we had that really wimpy winter weather with no snow cover, hardly any snow cover--

CRAIG SCHMIDT: Yeah. So that actually is probably helping keep this from being even worse. Because the soils were so dry after the lack of snowmelt and lack of water that was able to infiltrate the soils that it actually-- the first month, month and a half of water that we got, a lot of that just went into recharging the soils. And so only now are we really saturated enough that almost all of the rain that now falls is running off and going right into the rivers.

CATHY WURZER: Can we say that flooding is a fingerprint of our changing climate?

CRAIG SCHMIDT: It's related. I think the fact that-- I think the main thing that we'll see with changing climate, and especially in the upper Midwest, in Minnesota in particular, is the continued extremes. We'll have extreme rainfall and then extreme dry and then more extreme rainfall and more extreme dry. So I just think we'll see more and more of this rapid fluctuations from one to another as we move forward in time.

CATHY WURZER: So I know you're keeping an eye on rising rivers right now. And, of course, we have another round of rain here today. And the weekend forecast doesn't look great either. If you can look out into the future here, what do you think July looks like?

CRAIG SCHMIDT: Yeah. Looking into July, it's really hard to get a good feel for the pattern. A lot of this is being driven by the positioning of almost a global wave pattern, which is really favorable for bringing moisture up from the Gulf over us and then having it interact with the weather systems moving across the north. I do see that, I think, the ridge will shift a little bit and maybe move over us and give us a brief respite. But right now, it looks like things are going to stay pretty active, at least into the early part of July, from what I can see right now.

CATHY WURZER: Hmm. Interesting. All right, so for folks tuning in late, you mentioned the Mississippi River could get pretty close to major flood stage. Other rivers you're watching that you're concerned about?

CRAIG SCHMIDT: Yeah. The one I'm most concerned about right now is the Crow because they've received a good 6 to 10 inches of rain just in the last week in that basin. We've already got a forecast of major flood stage for Mayer, down through Delano, toward Rockford. And with the rain that we've got coming today-- but especially I'm concerned about Thursday night through Saturday-- we could have another stalled system over top of us that could just produce quite a bit of rainfall during that time-- every six hours, a half inch or something like that.

So it's the kind of thing that I'm concerned, really, about, that basin, just because of how much has already fallen. But then the entire Minnesota River itself and the tributaries draining into that, they haven't been quite as bad as the Crow, but they've also been receiving a lot of rain lately. And things are just pretty much a bankfull and not a whole lot of room for that water to go.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Craig Schmidt, thank you so much for your time.

CRAIG SCHMIDT: My pleasure.

CATHY WURZER: We've been talking to Craig Schmidt, a Senior Hydrologist with the National Weather Service office in Chanhassen. By the way, we've got all the flood warnings that you might want to know about at mprnews.org/weather. We're going to focus on one city that's getting ready for high water. That would be Saint Paul, which, as I mentioned, is not far away from the confluence of the Mississippi and the Minnesota rivers.

Lisa Hiebert joins us right now. Lisa is a Public Information Officer with the city of Saint Paul's Public Works Department. Thanks for taking the time.

LISA HIEBERT: Thanks, Cathy. Thanks for having me.

CATHY WURZER: Sounds like you guys are pretty busy. What's happening?

LISA HIEBERT: Yeah. As a river town, we are always watching the water levels and working very closely with Craig at the National Weather Service to see what's coming and what the forecast might hold so we can prepare accordingly. Water levels rise. We have a really robust flood action plan for the city, and we just put those steps in place.

CATHY WURZER: And what are those steps?

LISA HIEBERT: So right now, again, we're at the action stage level of about 10 feet. And so we actually have a lot of things closed from earlier. We closed Water Street, which is on the southern side of the Mississippi River. And we expect to get some flooding on that with this next round. And mostly, just a lot of trails and some amenities in our parks are starting to close, like public launches and things like that, that are lower lying, that will see that increase first with the water levels.

CATHY WURZER: Craig mentioned that the water levels could creep up to major flood stage. What does that mean? What does it look like?

LISA HIEBERT: Yeah. Major flood stage level, again, in Saint Paul is about 17 feet. Right around there is when people will really start noticing some closures. And probably the biggest one for Saint Paul is the potential closure of Warner/Shepard Road, which is on the north side of the Mississippi River, along downtown. So, again, we're really keeping a close eye on that and seeing where those levels will go, especially with this next rainfall that is coming through this week, and have a better decision later at the end of this week about if and when we need to close Warner/Shepard Road. So that's probably the biggest impact that people will see.

CATHY WURZER: So how can folks stay safer on the river in these next few days into the-- well, actually, the next few weeks?

LISA HIEBERT: Yeah. We really love our river and our parks along the Mississippi River here in Saint Paul and want people to come out and enjoy them safely. So the biggest thing is is if you see those barricades along the trails or on launches and things like that, don't try to go around them. Don't explore. They're there for your safety and ours to enjoy the river at a safe distance.

CATHY WURZER: There are events on Raspberry Island in that general area, is what I'm wondering about. Might the potential for high water causing any problems for any events, any city events?

LISA HIEBERT: Yeah. Again, keeping a really close eye on it. It's a really popular place, especially during the summer, with events and weddings and things like that. So I know that there's probably a few brides and events that are watching this as closely as we are. But working very closely to let people know if and when we need to close down the pavilion or Raspberry Island with these water levels and working with those folks. So, again, keeping a really close eye on it, and we'll be working with people.

As Craig mentioned, we're keeping an eye out for things in July and seeing where that water will be and especially on Harriet Island with some of the big festivals coming this summer.

CATHY WURZER: That's right. So he mentioned, of course, these extremes. I mean, either you get a lot of water or you get nothing. So as a person who is working closely with others in the city of Saint Paul to plan, how difficult is that?

LISA HIEBERT: Again, being the river city that we are, the action plan is-- for flooding, anyways-- is pretty dictated by, again, what we're seeing with the water level rises and how quickly it comes through. Everything flows through Saint Paul. So that's a pretty standard practice for us, quite honestly. But again, with the extremes, we're just seeing a lot of changes in the weather and how we have to respond to it, whether it's snow plowing in the winter or flooding in the spring or summer rains. It's just part of what we need to do and be prepared for with public works.

CATHY WURZER: Sounds like you all need to be kind of nimble.

LISA HIEBERT: Yeah. Being flexible and being responsive is really important. And again, working with our businesses, our residents to make sure everybody's aware of what's going on and how that might impact them differently, especially when they may not be expecting it.

CATHY WURZER: Right. Lisa Hiebert, thanks for the time.

LISA HIEBERT: Thanks for having us.

CATHY WURZER: Lisa Hiebert's a Public Information Officer with the city of Saint Paul's Public Works Department.

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