A quick transition from snow piles to street flooding to potholes

Greg Mizer shovels out a storm drain catch basin on Wabasha Street
Greg Mizer, with Allied Parking shovels out a storm drain catch basin on Wabasha Street in downtown St. Paul on Monday.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Minnesotans got a dose of spring Monday with the sun out and temperatures rising into the 30s, but forecasters and street crews say weather in the next four days will create a recipe for lots of standing water and bad roads across the state.

Cars are sloshing through standing water all over town right now, as the meltdown from record February snow starts in earnest — and in many places, it's happening before hundreds of miles of storm sewers are open and ready to carry off the runoff.

And there's more on the way. Maybe a lot more.

"We're going to see some drizzle on Tuesday, but the real steady stuff is probably going to begin on Wednesday and continue on and off through Thursday," said Bill Borghoff, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in the Twin Cities. "Lots of rain totals are going to exceed an inch. There could be a couple of inches, especially across southwestern and western Minnesota it's looking like right now."

With high temperatures well into the 40s across much of the state, that rainfall will quickly melt snow. And while spring comes every year, this one is going to be tough — record snow and bitter cold in February have left snow piled up late in the season, on top of deeper-than-usual frost in the ground.

Cities are already struggling to cope with the melt.

In Fairmont, Minn., this weekend, the icy storm sewers, rain and snowmelt had water curb deep in some places around town. On one 36-foot-wide street, there was water all the way across in some locations, according to Troy Nemmers, Fairmont's director of public works.

Like in many cities, crews in Fairmont are trying to get the catch basins on the sides of streets cleared of ice and snow so the water has somewhere to go. But in some places, like Minneapolis, plows were still piling more snow on the curb even on Monday.

A storm drain catch basin on Fairmount Avenue in St. Paul is full of snow.
A storm drain catch basin on Fairmount Avenue in St. Paul was still full of snow on Sunday as temperatures climbed into the 30s. There are about 28,000 such drains in the city, and public works crews were responding to backups as late as 10 p.m. on Saturday.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

"We are focused on low-lying known problem areas for flooding, and we are clearing catch basins, so we have crews with Bobcats and tools clearing the drains at the end of the block to make sure that we can have precipitation and snowmelt go where it should go," said Katrina Kessler, the surface waters and sewer division director for public works in Minneapolis.

But it's no small feat. Kessler estimates only about 750 of the city's 55,000 catch basins had been cleared before Monday.

There's about half that number in St. Paul, where crews were out until 10 o'clock Saturday night trying to chip away at the snow piled at the edges of streets.

The city is actually asking residents to pitch in by shoveling off the metal grates embedded in the street gutters.

But St. Paul public works director Kathy Lantry says with the melt and rain, there's probably going to be a lot of standing water, and drivers will need to use caution anyway.

"We always tell people don't drive through a puddle, you never know how deep it is," she said.

Minneapolis isn't putting out the same call — they're cautious about telling people to be working near traffic. But officials say residents can call 311 to report flooding or standing water in intersections. They're getting about 50 calls a day now about street flooding.

Mike Kennedy, transportation maintenance director for Minneapolis public works, said that'll also make for a more familiar road hazard: potholes.

"We're seeing an explosion of potholes," he said. "We've had just the right ingredients here: lots of long, extended cold and a lot of moisture into the cracks in the pavement."

And until the weather improves, officials say your best bet is to slow down, keep an eye on the road and stay out of water as best you can.

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