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Low water levels in the Mississippi River create issues for commercial boating

WACOUTA, Minn. (FOX47) — Drought conditions across the region are leading to lower water levels on the Mississippi, which is leading to navigation problems for barges. The barges could run aground when encountering unexpected sandbars.

Low water levels are especially problematic near Wacouta, where the river goes from being very narrow to very wide. Only one barge with a tugboat is able to pass through this area at a given time in either direction.

“That area, we’ve had a few more groundings there, or complaints, than we have seen in maybe the last 10-15 years or so,” said Steve Tapp, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers St. Paul district channels and harbors chief.

“We’re actually seeing a lot of commercial activity in our harbor. What concerns me is the water levels are so low, that as the barges are assembled and put together and are proceeding up and down the river, they can run into issues if the water continues to drop in its levels,” said Lucy McMartin, City of Winona director of community development.

The Corps works to dredge navigation channels along the river. However, the northern end of Lake Pepin, near Wacouta, is especially difficult to keep clear.

“That area is historically a challenge to us. The river widens out there at the mouth of Lake Pepin and the flow slows down dramatically. So that’s where you see all that sediment dropping out,” said Tapp.

Looking ahead, there are plans in place to try and widen the river in this area.

“We are working with the city of Red Wing, you know, to look at what we can do to widen that area out eventually. And they’ve been very cooperative at looking and helping us find a solution up at the commercial harbor area, so we’re working on something with them on that,” said Tapp.

High waters can also be problematic along the Mississippi.

“Ironically, in 2019, we only had six barges because of high water, so we’re always challenged with those water levels whether they’re high or low,” said McMartin.

Among other things, high water can complicate passage under lower bridges.

“It is just so difficult to keep up during either high water years or low water years, and so we’re confident that they’ll get the dredging done that they need,” said McMartin.

Noah Caplan

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