Minn. officials hope mitigation efforts withstand 'critical challenge' of flooding

People speak at a press conference near a flooding river.
Water covers much of Harriet Island Riverfront Park in downtown St. Paul on Sunday.
Estelle Timar-Wilcox | MPR News

Waterways around Minnesota are reaching peak flood levels — and after a snowy winter, they’re higher this year than usual.

St. Paul started closing roads and paths along the Mississippi River last week in anticipation of flooding.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter spoke to the press at Harriet Island on Sunday, a few feet from the floodwater that has reached the park’s lowest roads and parking lots.

“This is a critical challenge for us as we see our parks and our community trails and spaces that we’re used to using underwater right now,” Carter said.

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On Thursday, water levels reached 17 feet, which is considered the “major flood” stage. The river currently stands at about 17.8 feet, and it’s projected to peak this week at around 18.8 feet. Stretches of Shepard Road and Water Street are among several roads in St. Paul closed due to flooding,

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., joined Carter at Harriet Island and commended St. Paul’s flood mitigation measures including levees and the road closures.

People speak at a press conference near a flooding river.
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter (left) and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar speak about flooding conditions in St. Paul while standing nearby the Mississippi River flooding parts of Harriet Island Regional Park.
Estelle Timar-Wilcox | MPR News

“The key is all the preparation, or things would be so much worse,” Klobuchar said. “When you think about some of the floods in the past that have affected our state and really ruined people’s livelihoods, slowed down all commerce … that’s not happening this year.”

Other cities, too, report effective flood mitigation this year. In Stillwater, the St. Croix has reached about 88.9 feet, and it’s expected to rise another foot. Every spring, volunteer crews in the city help build a sandbag wall to stop the river from flooding downtown.

Stillwater Mayor Ted Kozlowski said flood mitigation has been going smoothly this year.

“Frankly, we’re getting better at it every year,” Kozlowski said.

The floods even spark a wave of tourism in Stillwater. Visitors come to see the high water levels and the sandbag wall holding back the river.

“It is kind of interesting to see all the work that was done to prevent the kind of catastrophe that would be a flood in downtown Stillwater,” Kozlowski said.

But even though flood prevention has gotten better, this year’s high water levels are still affecting some Minnesotans. Some basements in Stillwater and several homes near riverbanks are flooding this spring.

Officials warn the public to follow guidelines about road closures and to use caution near flooded waterways.

With more instances of extreme weather occurring in recent years, officials are bracing for more frequent and higher flooding in the future.

“Every single year it seems lately — in part because of our changing climate and what’s happening — people say it’s the storm of the century, the year, that we’ve never seen a blizzard like this, and then mother nature says, ‘hold my beer,’” Klobuchar said.