In Washington County, all eyes are on the rivers

The swollen Mississippi and Lower St. Croix rivers continue to rise. County is stockpiling sandbags.

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The swollen Mississippi River overwhelmed the levee in Newport, inundating several buildings and homes. The city declared a state of emergency last week, and waters were not expected to recede until the middle of next week.

Photo: Jim Anderson • jim.anderson@startribune.com,

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Forecasts of more heavy rain this weekend put an exclamation point on a surge of flood preparations in Washington County, including emergency declarations by four cities bordering the Mississippi and Lower St. Croix rivers.

“We are very closely monitoring what those forecasts are going to be and how the graphs will change,” said Doug Berglund, the county’s emergency management director. The county Public Works department had begun stockpiling sandbags, he said.

Newport’s City Council declared a state of emergency after the swollen Mississippi breached two levies, inundating some homes and buildings and flooding some streets. Cottage Grove, Lake St. Croix Beach and Afton followed suit by Thursday afternoon.

Utilities were shut down at two houses in Newport and residents were evacuated, said Bruce Hanson, director of the Public Works Department. Two other residents were on standby for evacuation.

The city was pumping water back over the levees, with city workers putting in 12-hour shifts to run the pumps and keep the streets from flooding.

The levees in Newport, hurriedly built during the 1965 Mississippi River flood, have been a vexing issue for the city. Never intended as permanent structures, they’ve been weakened over the years from erosion, animal burrows and tree roots. Sand used to build them becomes mushy in heavy flooding, allowing water to seep through.

Because they are private structures, city involvement in improving them creates a legal and financial liability. As a result, Newport has adopted a flood policymaking clear that it is not responsible for the levees, but will protect city property and offer limited help to residents for sandbagging. The city last week set up a sand station for homeowners at the intersection of Cedar Lane and 16th Street.

Early in the week, Matt Iverson was watching waters creep higher on his riverside property where he has lived for more than a dozen years. But he wasn’t panicking.

“It’s high, but it’s not drastic,” he said.

His neighbors weren’t as fortunate, with two large sheds half submerged in water.

The Mississippi was forecast to reach flood stage last Thursday or Friday, and isn’t expected to recede for about week.

Berglund said no cities and townships had asked for county assistance, but more rain forecast for this weekend could change that.

“These cities are pretty self-sufficient and do a good job of mitigating any issues they might have,” he said.

Residents on Grey Cloud Island were bracing for another siege from the Mississippi River, and Berglund said the city of Cottage Grove had closed one of the bridges to the island. An ambulance and fire truck might be moved to the island as a precaution, he said.

“The homes on the island won’t be affected by the water but the access will,” he said.

On the rising Lower St. Croix, water covered the parks, boat landings and trails. The National Weather Service forecast that the river would crest this weekend — just short of moderate flood stage.

Saturday’s level was projected to crest at 687.6 feet above sea level, about 3 feet higher than a week earlier. However, that projection didn’t take into account weekend thunderstorms, which meteorologist Paul Douglas said could produce rainfall of 1-2 inches per storm. The Stillwater Lift Bridge, closed last Monday, will remain so until further notice. In downtown Stillwater, gawkers stood at the water’s edge where police had erected warning signs. The promenade along Lowell Park wasn’t visible as water rose to within feet of the city’s new flood control berm.

On the Upper St. Croix north of Taylors Falls, the river level was dropping, said Jerry Dorff, owner of Wild River Outfitters in Grantsburg, Wis. The river was well below flood stage, he said, and in “excellent paddling condition” because it was free of large floating debris.

Jim Anderson • 651-925-5039 Kevin Giles: • 651-925-5037

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