Torrential rain sends southern Minnesota rivers rising once again

Published 6:03 pm Tuesday, May 16, 2023

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By Tim Nelson

Just when it seemed that spring flooding had finally exited the region, some southern Minnesota rivers are on the rise again in the wake of torrential rain.

In some places, rivers have now topped the crests seen earlier this spring, from this winter’s historic snowfall. And the water is still rising.

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Stretches of State Highways 19 and 93 remain closed along the Minnesota River near Henderson, cutting off two main access points to that community.

The Minnesota River crossing north of Jordan is now closed, too, due to the rising water.

And all the water that’s swelling the Minnesota River will make its way to the Mississippi River at St. Paul, where city officials have postponed the reopening of a long stretch of Shepard/Warner Road near downtown.

Torrential rain

While it may be after Mother’s Day, much of Minnesota is still seeing the effects of this past winter’s heavy snowfall. Rivers across the region remain quite high, particularly in comparison to last year.

Then the skies opened up.

“Over the past week, we’ve had as much as 9 inches of rain in south-central, southwest Minnesota. Three, 4 or 5 inches over a widespread area of the Minnesota River basin,” said Craig Schmidt, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in the Twin Cities. “It was a couple of storms also, we had one in the middle of last week and then again on the weekend. So we’ve kind of soaked things up with the first one and then added more on top of it — and the second one is pretty much all becoming runoff.”

The bullseye has been west of Mankato, in western Brown County — including the city of Comfrey, where flash flooding inundated some homes over the weekend.

That water is now flowing into creeks and streams, and down to the Minnesota River.

The river is forecast to crest midweek at Mankato at about 25.6 feet — moderate flood stage, and about a dozen feet higher than it was last week.

Downstream, the river is forecast to reach moderate flood stage at Henderson late this week.

The closure of Highway 19 east of the city is just the latest of what’s now sometimes a multiple-times-a-year occurrence.

It’s happening so often that the Minnesota Department of Transportation has now installed drop arms — like railroad crossing gates — because hauling barriers and sandbags out each time is such a bother.

Mayor Keith Swenson said they just swing the gate down when the water comes up. But the ease of closing the highway doesn’t mean it’s easy for local residents and businesses. The highway closures force a lengthy detour to get north to the Twin Cities, or south to Mankato.

“It really gets to be a pain in the butt. And then the businesses in town basically go on zombie mode because people can’t get here. It’s like $60,000 a day that we’ve actually run the math on, that we lose in losses to business and also extra expenses to the citizens,” he said.

Swenson said the classic car shows the city hosts on Tuesday nights in the summer are a big draw, and there still may be high water when they’re scheduled to start in the coming weeks. A project is underway to raise Highway 93 near Henderson by as much as 8 feet. But that multi-year effort is not expected to be finished by 2025.

The past week’s rain also sent the Cottonwood River at New Ulm to major flood stage, prompting the city to close a stretch of Cottonwood Street. Some trails are closed at Flandrau State Park.

Not all rivers affected

While the Minnesota River is rising, and the Mississippi River at St. Paul and downstream from the Twin Cities is forecast to rise again — the past week’s heavy rain in southern Minnesota has not affected all rivers in the region.

The water level of the St. Croix River at Stillwater is forecast to climb a little in the coming days, but remain below flood stage.

The Mississippi River at Aitkin is forecast to finally drop below flood stage later this week.

And the Red River at Fargo-Moorhead is forecast to drop below flood stage over the coming weekend.