Levee System Protects Winona from Flooding

The late snowfall that struck and made a temporary home in Winona earlier this year, including a large chunk of the country, is now causing what the National Weather Service is deeming record-breaking flooding.

Since the beginning of April, the Winona Daily News, via their various social media accounts, has reported more than 40 river flood warnings and that number continues to grow.

One example of severe flooding is the Levee Road on the north side of town, which is home to Winona State University’s boat, the Cal Fremling, and the dock that tethers it, as well as the Boat House restaurant situated just above the flood waters.

The raised-dock to Winona State University’s boat, the Cal Fremling, sits in the flooded Levee Road

While normally a road through which motorists can drive and pedestrians use to fish, the street is submerged underwater, with the only indication of something man-made existing underneath being light poles that rise above the water and submerged walkways.

Speaking at a flood briefing in mid-March, meteorologist Dan Luna said Minnesota is going through what is considered one of the wettest decades ever.

“We won’t be out of the woods for quite a while,” Luna said. “We have the potential for significant flooding all the way into May.”

Courtesy of the National Weather Service’s Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service, the water elevation in Winona is expected to stay consistent through late April

Roughly a month later, Luna’s prediction appears to be becoming more true by the day.

Winona Director of Public Works Keith Nelson echoed Luna’s prediction and discussed how the city deals with flooding.

“It’s been up above 13 feet, which is the historic flood elevation, for a couple of weeks,” Nelson said. “And it’s anticipated that it will be up there for another three weeks or so.”

According to Nelson, the flooding is the worst at the Prairie Island campgrounds on the northwest edge of town.

“The whole campground is underwater,” Nelson said. “Beyond that, everything is protected by the levee, so we don’t really get any flooding in Winona itself. It all stays on the river-side of the levee …”

Nelson said there are various deterrents in place to keep the Mississippi from flooding into Winona.

“The Levee Road gets covered at nine feet,” Nelson said. “At 20 feet, there’s the concrete wall that is actually the flood-control structure.”

At 20 feet above from where the water normally sits, a wall is in place to protect the town from 24 feet of water-elevation.

Nelson said in 2001 the river elevated to 20.07 feet, suggesting the wall is more than capable of handling this type of flooding.

“The wall is designed for 22 feet of elevation and then we have two feet of free-board over and above that,” Nelson said. “Which is protection from waves, erosion, ‘oops’ factors, those kind of things … We’re right around 16 feet this year.”

Nelson said there are five flood pumps that siphon water from in town back into the river whenever it gets too high.

The levee system appears to be the main deterrent against flooding, though, which Nelson said has done well to keep the city safe from the Mississippi River.

“The levee system is 10 miles of either sand levee or concrete walls that (were) put in in the 60s and the 80s to protect the city,” Nelson said. “So the city is well-protected, but it’s by this massive flood-control project that we have to monitor and operate every year. Because of that, we don’t see any damage here.”

Nelson said without the levee system, with where the water is currently at, which is 13 feet, roughly a fourth of the community would be underwater.

With Winona free of the risk of flooding over, this doesn’t rule out occasional leakage into homes.

Nelson said a reason for this is because Winona is a sandbar.

“We’re basically in the river sitting on top of a sandbar,” Nelson said. “So the water is always creeping this direction, and it’s rising underneath us … Because of that, you’ll see water in homes.”

In an effort to remove any doubt of the precautions the city has in place to keep Winona safe from flooding, Nelson is adamant the river won’t come into town.

“It’s not an option,” Nelson said. “If it ever comes into town, that means the levee is starting to erode and break, and we can’t afford that to happen. We’d have billions of dollars of damage and people would die.”

One thought on “Levee System Protects Winona from Flooding”

  1. What is to be concluded from Winona’s story? Levees are good at protecting bits of land and communities where we’ve deemed it unacceptable that they be exposed to repeated floods. It’s not realistic to relocate all floodplain communities to higher ground – Winona, for example, has 25,000 people on a few square miles of land and is hemmed in by 500 ft bluffs – and if we are going to continue to use major waterways as transportation corridors, we need ports to get stuff on and off boats. Levees do a great job of minimizing impacts from moderate size floods. Ten out of 26 years since the Winona levee 570 was completed have had peak flows above flood stage, so that’s nearly 40% of years where the levee has prevented flood damage and produced an economic benefit that will eventually equal its construction costs. In my mind, there’s no question that Winona is a place that benefits from and deserves its levee. I do acknowledge my bias in the matter, however, and I know that there are some serious negatives that come with levees.

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