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.
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.”
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.”
Boaters on Minnesota waters are supposed to take measures to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species. A new law might have boaters staying off Minnesota water and roadways altogether.
According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Statute 86B.13 will require boaters to take an educational training course about aquatic invasive species and pass an online test to legalize the transportation of watercrafts to and from different bodies of water.
April Rust, an invasive species training coordinator for the DNR, said a lot of aquatic invasive species laws were changed in 2011 and 2012. In the legislation package, one of them was a required boat sticker, four inches wide and eight inches tall, which stated the aquatic invasive species laws.
“What the law stated was anyone that was using any watercraft in Minnesota would have to put the sticker somewhere on their boat, just so they would have the laws with them,” Rust said. “People did not like it and it was less than a year in the next legislative session, that thing was repealed. We had printed some and already had gotten them out and so there was a lot of confusion about it and there was no training or education requirement. All it said was that you need one of these stickers that are free at a DNR office. Call or stop by and get one and put it on your boat.”
Rust said it was very unpopular and the legislature repealed it, but there was “incredible pressure” by groups, lake associations and citizen groups who wanted make sure people knew and followed aquatic invasive species laws.
The new 2015 program, originally set to launch in January and officially required on July 1, 2015, would have boaters take an online course for $5 to learn about aquatic invasive species and then to pass a ten-point quiz at the end, which can be taken as many times as people need. They would receive a decal to be display on their trailers and renew it once every three years, Rust said. If owners have more than one watercraft, they can receive extra stickers.
There was also a paper version ready to be printed for those who do not have Internet, which would cost $11. The $5 online fee would cover the vendor’s costs to manage and host the online content, Rust said.
“Anyone transporting water related equipment in Minnesota would need to take the short course,” Rust said. “And the course in the statute says that the course will instruct people about aquatic invasive species and aquatic invasive species laws in Minnesota.”
Rust said she isn’t sure where the idea came from, be it legislation, citizen groups or staff, but the DNR did not start it.
“This wasn’t ours necessarily, other than we got pulled into it because of our jurisdiction,” Rust said. “So the purpose was to just to make sure that people knew aquatic invasive species laws and to follow it to lower the risk of spreading aquatic invasive species.”
Aquatic invasive species are not native to specific bodies of water and cause environmental or human harm. Zebra mussels, specific types of carp, and weeds are the most invasive species, which can suffocate native plants and disrupt natural habitats, according to the DNR. A full list is available at http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/invasives/index.html.
The DNR said aquatic invasive species are spread by not washing off aquatic plants from trailers and watercraft, not draining live wells or water tanks before leaving boat landings, not removing drain plugs and releasing live bait into the water.
Rust said there was mixed opposition and support of the law, but most people wanted to comply with the law.
“They got a lot of phone calls and I would say just from talking to them and from the calls I got, the majority of people calling just wanted to ask questions or get registered to take the course,” Rust said.
Rust said she teaches aquatic invasive species training for businesses that require permits, such as lake associations, boat haulers and irrigators, which take a three-hour training, every three years, and pay $50 for a permit.
“At least 20 percent of them were gung-ho about it, and then a bunch in the middle who just had logistical questions or just wanted to get it and didn’t express an opinion either way,” Rust said.
She estimated about 10 percent of boaters were upset about the law, and those are the ones who have been active and gotten legislators involved. There’s a Facebook group, “Repeal MN Statute 86B.13,” which has 3,450 likes and posts updates about the law’s progress in the legislature. Rust added there is “a lot of misinformation about the program out there.”
“It’s not to dismiss it. They are some of the loudest voices,” Rust said. “I’d say the majority are either supportive or neutral about it.”
Competitive bass angler Cade Laufenberg said he takes the necessary precautions by law to prevent invasive species spreading.
“I do not go through great lengths or above and beyond my call of duty to do such. I do not have time to wash and dry my boat thoroughly after each use when I fish as often as five days per week,” Laufenberg said. “I drain my live wells, remove any weeds from the trailer and boat and wipe down the boat with a water-based solution.”
On Jan. 28, the DNR said in a news release the training course would be “postponed while legislators consider changes to the program.” They also said there were “concerns with the way the law was written.” One concern was boaters traveling through Minnesota but not launching in Minnesota waters, would still need the required training and sticker.
The decals must be obtained through the training course and once received, “must be displayed on the tongue of the trailer near the hitch and does not interfere with any other sticker regulations,” according to the DNR.
If boaters are found without the decal after July 1, they will be ordered by conservation officers to take the training course before continuing to operate or transport watercraft, according to the DNR.
Laufenberg agrees “we should be doing something to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species” and said “the AIS program has good intentions, but the methods used to try and implement this are a burden on the public who use the waterways and bring so much to Minnesota’s economy.”
“Why should boaters be required to pay additional fees on top of the fees we already pay just to continue using the waterways?” Laufenberg said. “I think the law passing will make virtually no difference whatsoever in the number of invasive species.”
Rust said fewer than five percent of Minnesota’s lakes, numbering 12,000 and about 6,500 rivers and streams, are infected with aquatic invasive species and are listed on the infested waters list.
“It’s not as horrific a picture as I think the public perception is,” Rust said. “Not to dismiss it at all, but it’s not like it’s a done deal where every water body is going to be infested with all of these things.”
Education is the main tool the DNR uses to prevent aquatic invasive species from spreading. The basics of the education programs help boaters know about aquatic invasive species and what they should be doing and the basic laws and how to lower the risk of spreading them, Rust said.
“Prevention is definitely the first priority because if you can keep species out, that’s the most cost-effective easiest way to do it,” Rust said. “There’s a whole bunch of methods, out reach and communication, watercraft inspectors, official DNR ones that have pressure wash stations and will do decontaminations on boats for people for free.”
They also use campaigns, grants and volunteer inspectors trained by DNR staff. The inspectors do not have legal authority, but Rust said the DNR has extended their authority to require inspections and have that force of law.
“We can give that authority to county or city or local unit of government and their employees can be trained and have the equivalent of DNR inspector,” Rust said.
Rust said that a new zebra mussel researcher at the University of Minnesota Research Center said “zebra mussels in Minnesota have spread a decade slower than they have in other Great Lakes states.”
“We don’t know if it’s an effect of geography or our programming or what, but it’s been slower here,” Rust said. “That being said, once a water body is infested, eradication is almost impossible.”
Rust said she thought the new training program would contribute to fewer violations at the check stations and collection points. Compliance rates are compared every year and the rates are going down each year, Rust said.
“Last summer it was 16 or 17 percent at our random check stations of violation rates,” Rust said. “When you’re talking about a few people it would take to spread to a different water body, that’s still too high a percentage.”