A steady, two-day rain expected to drench the knee-deep snowpack across much of Minnesota is raising concerns over flooding and sending street crews and homeowners scrambling to find a place for all that water to go.
In a mad dash to beat Wednesday’s rain, snow-weary maintenance workers across the Twin Cities and around the state shoveled snow, chopped ice and steamed open clogged catch basins and culverts in an effort to keep flooding at bay.
All the while, forecasters and local officials are keeping an eye on rivers and creeks that could overflow during a rapid meltdown.
Flooding is already causing problems, closing Hwy. 60 near Hwy. 61 in Wabasha on Tuesday night and pooling on Interstate 35 north of Albert Lea, which remained open.
A storm that could dump 6 inches to more than a foot of snow in Fargo and parts of northwest Minnesota will add to an already deep snowpack and potential for spring flooding.
The storm is expected to begin Wednesday afternoon, with heavier amounts falling in the evening. By the time the storm tapers Thursday, high winds that could hit gusts of up to 60 mph will kick up blizzard conditions, said Nick Carletta, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Forks.
The barometric pressure could be comparable to what is seen during a Category 1 to Category 2 hurricane, he added.
Most of Minnesota, however, is expected to get 1 to nearly 1 ½ inches of rain from Wednesday into Thursday, according Caleb Grunzke, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Chanhassen. With temperatures in the 40s, most of the state will be under a flood watch as rain falls and snow melts.
The good news is that the snowpack likely will act like a sponge, absorbing much of the rain, Grunzke said. What doesn’t stay in the snow should easily go down the drain, he added.
But that all depends whether catch basins and culverts are free of snow, ice and fall debris.
In Minneapolis and St. Paul, street crews on Tuesday had to multi-task as they finished plowing the remnants from last weekend’s snowstorm, patched emerging potholes and cleared storm drains to keep water flowing. In New Ulm, crews fanned out across the city the last two days, working from sunup to early evening clearing storm drains that have been packed with snow and ice all season.
“They’ve been truly hidden,” said Sara Pruett, a New Ulm police officer and spokeswoman for the city. As a light rain began falling Tuesday, she and officials from other cities such as Montevideo, Bloomington and Northfield had fingers crossed that they successfully cleared a path for the onslaught of water.
What’s around the bend?
As the rain pushes out of the state on Thursday, the wait-and-see game continues over whether the spring melt will produce flooding.
The short-term forecast is for normal to near normal temperatures — low 40s during the day and mid-20 at night — and that will allow for a slow melt, meteorologist Grunzke said.
That’s an ideal outlook for people like Eric Waage, Hennepin County’s director of emergency management, who hope for the best but prepare for the worst with pumps and sandbagging equipment at the ready.
Record snowfalls, combined with deep frost in ground that already was saturated before it froze, could make “for an interesting spring,” Waage said. Potential problems include ice dams that could cause rivers to back up and overflow, low-land flooding along Minnehaha Creek and other waterways and possible mudslides on oversaturated bluffs.
“We’ll have to see what comes around the bend,” Waage said.
In Red Wing, the Mississippi River level Wednesday morning was just 3 feet above the level required for navigation in the channel at the edge of town, and it is expected to rise to 7 feet by next Tuesday, said Lynn Nardinger, the city’s deputy director of public services. Minor street flooding begins about 12 feet.
“It has to get to about 18 feet before we start seeing very many homes affected,” Nardinger said.
The Weather Service has said there’s a greater than 90 percent chance that the river could reach just over 14 feet the week of April 8, and a 10 percent chance it could hit 20 feet, Nardinger said.
So far, the city has not started stuffing sandbags and doesn’t expect to do so until next week, Nardinger said.
In Montevideo, which sits at the confluence of the Minnesota and Chippewa rivers just south of the Lac qui Parle dam, there’s a 50 percent chance that the Minnesota River will hit 18.5 feet this year. At that level, minor street flooding could occur and part of the town that lies in the flood plain could lose utilities, water and sewer service, said Aaron Blom, Montevideo’s public works director. That would affect about 20 residents and eight or nine businesses, he said.
“We’re not too concerned about the river at this point,” Blom said. “If it reaches 21 feet, we’ll have some work to do.”
One concern that could make things worse, though, are ice dams. The Army Corps of Engineers opened the Lac qui Parle dam two weeks ago to lower the reservoir and help break up the ice down the Minnesota River, Blom said.
In Stillwater, crews will build a temporary 2,000-foot-long levee that could reach 15 feet high along the St. Croix River.
More than 1,300 people have signed up to be a part of the “Stillwater Flood Volunteers” Facebook group, where Mayor Ted Kozlowski is posting updates about when volunteers will be needed to help fill sandbags.
“Collectively, most of us cannot wait for winter to be over,” he said. But he was hopeful it would end gradually so people wouldn’t come to visit in shorts while the snow piles are still melting: “That’s not going to bode well for our cute little river town.”
But towns are confident.
“We’ve seen this many times before and we know what it takes. We always have folks pitching in,” said Hastings Public Works Director Nick Egger.